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The prevalence of adult obesity ranged from less than 10 per cent in Romania and Italy to over 20 per cent in the U.K., Ireland and Malta. ((Rick Wilking/Reuters))

More than half of adults in the European Union are overweight or obese, according to a new report.

The European Commission and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development published the report, Health at a Glance: Europe 2010, on Tuesday.

The rate of obesity has more than doubled over the past 20 years in most EU countries, which has important implications for health, health systems and the wider economy, the report's authors said.

Among adults, 50.1 per cent are now overweight or obese, based on the body mass index or BMI — a calculation based on a person's weight-to-height ratio.

Healthy adults should have a BMI of between 18.5 and 25, the World Health Organization recommends. Overweight people have a BMI of between 25 and 30 and obese people have a BMI of 30 or more.  

The prevalence of obesity ranged from less than 10 per cent in Romania and Italy to over 20 per cent in the U.K., Ireland and Malta. On average, just over 15 per cent of the adult population in the EU is obese, the report showed.

"In order to reverse the growing trend in obesity and other health problems in the EU we need reliable and up-to-date data to underpin the action we take," Europe's commissioner for health and consumer policy, John Dalli, said in a statement commenting on the report.

In comparison in 2009, 17.9 per cent of Canadians aged 18 and older or roughly 4.4 million adults reported height and weight that classified them as obese, Statistics Canada said.

Those Canadians considered at increased health risk because of excess weight included 59.2 per cent of men and 43.9 per cent of women.

In January, the Canadian Health Measures Survey also looked at waist circumference as a measure of risk for health problems.

Among adults age 20 to 39, for example, the percentage of people at risk because of expanding waistlines has quadrupled in the last 30 years, from five per cent to 21 per cent for men, and from six per cent to 31 per cent in women, Statistics Canada said.

Early healthy habits

For young Canadian children, 17 per cent were considered overweight and nine per cent were obese, based on BMI.

In the EU, 14 per cent of children were overweight or obese, the report's authors noted in stressing the importance of starting healthy habits early.

"Children who are obese or overweight are more likely to suffer from poor health later in life, with a greater risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, some forms of cancer, arthritis, asthma, a reduced quality of life and even premature death," the report read.

The report also suggested that better living conditions and medical progress have extended life expectancy at birth in the EU by six years over the period from 1980 to 2007. Life expectancy at birth was an average of 72 years in 1980, compared with 78 years in 2007.

Other highlights of the report include:

  • There were fewer deaths from heart disease, which remains the biggest cause of death in the EU despite less tobacco consumption and less heavy drinking in some countries. Heart disease accounted for 40 per cent of all deaths in Europe in 2008.
  • The second leading cause of death in the EU was cancer, which accounted for 26 per cent of deaths in 2008.
  • Health spending often increased at a faster rate than economic growth. In 2008, EU countries spent 8.3 per cent on average of GDP on health, up from 7.3 per cent a decade earlier.

An EU conference on nutrition, overweight and obesity is set for Wednesday and Thursday in Brussels to try to reverse the weight trends.