Around half a million children in Europe are suffering classic health problems of the middle-aged because they are too fat, according to new estimates.
The levels of obesity among Europe's children have been on the rise over the last 15 years, but experts are now starting to see the health consequences emerge on a large scale.
In Britain, one in five children is overweight or obese. In Spain the figure rises to 30% of children, and in Italy it reaches 36%. According to US government estimates, 30% of American children are overweight or obese.
In a new analysis presented at the start of this year's European Congress on Obesity in Athens, experts reported that high blood pressure, raised cholesterol, damaged blood sugar regulation and other dangerous conditions -- often referred to collectively as the metabolic syndrome -- were increasingly being identified alongside the rising levels of childhood obesity in Europe.
"The figures suggest that children in the EU could soon be measuring up to their counterparts in the US, where the numbers affected by the metabolic syndrome doubled from 910,000 to two million in less than 10 years," said the analysis by the International Obesity Task Force, a network of eminent obesity scientists and policy experts.
The group estimated that between 2,000 and 10,000 European children already had the type of diabetes usually diagnosed in middle age.
As the estimates were unveiled, a statement was delivered to the conference on behalf of EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection Markos Kyprianou.
He outlined plans for a Europewide code of conduct to rein in the marketing of unhealthy food to children and broader policy initiatives across agriculture, education and transport that address the obesity problem.
The European Union would publish a new strategy on diet and exercise before the end of the year and submit the document to public consultation with the food industry, anti-obesity activists and others to shape a final plan by the end of 2006, Mr Kyprianou said.
The move echoes unprecedented steps taken last year by the World Health Organisation, which launched a global strategy on diet and physical activity after health ministers from around the world approved the plan.