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Monitoring Health

Preventing and Controlling Obesity Using Nuclear Techniques

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Healthy eating messages at a primary school in Mauritius. (Photo: C. Slater/IAEA)

One of the growing challenges facing public health, is related to lifestyle factors, such as unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity. Obesity is one of the issues that can lead to non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as heart diseases and diabetes. This health problem has increased sharply in children in the past few decades, especially in developing countries due to the changes in diet and lifestyle. Coordinated efforts to address this issue, have also led to the use of stable isotope techniques to monitor and assess infant feeding practices, measure body composition and physical activity.

The IAEA has been supporting Member States through its technical cooperation programme and coordinated research projects (CRPs) in using nuclear techniques to assess obesity related issues that contribute to the global effort to improve infant and child nutrition.

From 19 to 24 May 2014, the IAEA hosted the final meeting of the CRP Nuclear Techniques to Assess Body Composition in Children and Adolescents as a Risk Factor in the Development of Chronic Diseases at its headquarters in Vienna. This meeting coincided with an announcement by the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Margaret Chan, on creating a commission to address the global increase in childhood obesity, particularly in developing countries, during the World Health Assembly in Geneva.

During the week-long meeting a number of critical issues pertaining to obesity were deliberated upon. These included health consequences of childhood obesity, implications in adulthood and strategies for prevention of obesity, body composition factors in low and middle income countries (LMICs), and patterns of growth and development in childhood that can have profound effects on future health and wellbeing.

For several years, IAEA has promoted standardised techniques for the assessment of body composition to facilitate comparisons between different age and ethnic groups.

Supported by technical experts from Chile, Australia and New Zealand, this CRP collected information about the body composition of children aged 6 to 16 years from 10 LMICs (Brazil, China, Cuba, Guatemala, India, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mexico, Moroccoa and Uruguay). Currently, obesity in children is diagnosed based on body mass index for age (BMI = weight/height2, kg/m2), but the proportion of body fat at any particular BMI is not consistent in individuals from different ethnic groups. The main outcome of this CRP was a better understanding of the relationship of body fat percentage and body mass index (BMI) to assess future health risk in children and adolescents.

The meeting provided a forum for the exchange and sharing of information to develop consensus in monitoring and seeking coordinated solutions to a prevalent health condition affecting a large number of children. Among the key outcomes of this meeting was the compilation of novel findings regarding the lifestyle practices and body composition of children and adolescents using stable isotope techniques.

The use of nuclear techniques has contributed to assessing nutritional status by measuring body composition and physical activity, so that Member States can develop intervention programmes to ensure that children receive good nutrition, and engage in physical activity, thus contributing to prevention of NCDs in the future.


- By Christine Slater, Nutritional and Health-Related Environmental Studies Section, IAEA Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications

(Note to Media: We encourage you to republish these stories and kindly request attribution to the IAEA)