View of Amstel river in Amsterdam

Does the Netherlands Have Obesity Under Control?

Headlines tell us that the Netherlands has obesity under control. The most recent dispatch comes from BBC. Earlier this week it ran a story telling us “How Amsterdam is reducing childhood obesity.” We wonder. Has the Netherlands found the secret sauce for reversing obesity trends?

Objective Evidence Is Important

This cycle of Mission Accomplished headlines started in 2015. Multiple news outlets reported on WHO projections of obesity rates across Europe for 2030. The overarching message of these reports was that obesity is on track to continue rising throughout Europe. But health reporters seized on a number that suggested obesity rates in the Netherlands would be down by 2030. It’s a projection, not a fact.

Contrast that projection with actual prevalence trends in the Netherlands. According to reports from the OECD, the latest data for obesity prevalence in the Netherlands shows an increase. Not a decrease. In 2012, 12.0% of Dutch adults had obesity. In 2015, the number was up to 12.8%. Also, those reports show childhood obesity prevalence growing.

Likewise, the Global Burden of Disease project recently reported in NEJM that obesity prevalence is growing in the Netherlands.

The latest report from Amsterdam’s Healthy Weight Programme says that childhood obesity prevalence in Amsterdam is down by 12%. However, we have no details or peer-reviewed publication of methods and findings.

The Hazards of Wishful Thinking

The task of sorting out obesity trends is important. But it’s challenging for two reasons. The first is methodology. Collecting data that truly represents the prevalence of obesity in the population is hard. If you rely on self-reports, people will distort the truth. They think of themselves as taller and lighter than objective measurement would show. And even if you weigh and measure people, you have real problems with sampling bias. Heavier people avoid being weighed.

But on top of challenging methods, you have the problem of wishful thinking. When people who want to see obesity rates go down are doing the reporting, it’s only natural to look for good news and question bad news. It’s not a question of bad intent. Just normal human subjectivity.

Maybe the latest data from Amsterdam’s childhood obesity project is genuine good news. But that data needs an objective, scholarly publication – with rigorous peer review – to be persuasive. Otherwise, we run the risk of misleading the public and policymakers.

So until we have persuasive data to the contrary, the facts tell us that no one has yet found the secret to reversing global obesity trends.

Click here for the reporting of BBC on this, here for reporting from Deutsche Welle, and here for the NEJM report on the global burden of obesity.

View of Amstel river in Amsterdam, ink sketch by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn / WikiArt

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April 5, 2018

2 Responses to “Does the Netherlands Have Obesity Under Control?”

  1. April 06, 2018 at 8:15 am, Allen Browne said:

    Yup – wishful thinking is just that.


  2. April 08, 2018 at 2:20 am, Ellen Govers said:

    In some area’s in Amsterdam where an intensive community based program has been implemented obesity rates in schoolchildren have been reduced. In general figures among adolescents and children are still very high and obesity has increased everywhere. We are trying to get combined lifestyle programs funded. Next hurdle: the food industry and the availability of unhealthy food everywhere 24/7. A huge barrier: everybody seems to be an expert on obesity. This makes discussions hard. We are not there yet.