Low consumption of fruits and especially vegetables, high intake of soft drinks and sweets, irregular breakfast patters and poor activity levels are being blamed for Malta’s lack of progress in the fight against obesity.  

This damning verdict was given in a report by the National Audit Office from which it transpired that nearly all targets set a decade ago have not been met. According to the latest statistics 35.4% of children, 31.2% of adolescents and 63.8% of the adult population are overweight.

The exercise was carried out by taking stock of the latest data in the context of the targets set in the 2012 Healthy Weight for Life Strategy. Unfortunately, the data reviewed indicates no progress, or, in most cases provides evidence that the situation has become worse.

From bad to worse

Statistics for the period 2013 to 2019 corresponding to children aged seven indicate stable rates for the obesity indicator (17.0% to 17.1%) and an increasing trend in pre-obesity (16% to 18.3%) and overweight (33% to 35.4%).

In the case of adolescents aged 11, 13 and 15, data for the period 2014 to 2018 indicate an increasing trend for all three indicators. The pre-obesity prevalence rate increased from 20.0 to 22.4%, while the obesity rate increased from 7.3 to 8.9% and that of overweight from 27.3 to 31.2%.

A similar increase for all three indicators is noted for adults aged 15+ for the period 2014 to 2019. The 2019 pre-obese, obese and overweight prevalence rates were 35.7, 28.1 and 63.8%, respectively, up from those of 2014, which stood at 34.4, 25.2 and 59.6%, respectively. 5.

The NAO’s overall assessment in terms of the achievement of the targets set is negative, with only one of the four targets, that relating to adolescents, having been met. The target relating to adolescents was set as the maintenance of the proportion of 13-year-olds who are obese below 1%.

The data sourced by the NAO indicates that 7.4 % of 13-year-olds were obese in 2018, and therefore, the obesity prevalence rate among adolescents was effectively halved in the period 2006 to 2018, far exceeding the target set. However, when considering the overweight indicator as opposed to the obesity indicator for adolescents, a bleaker picture emerges. The percentage of adolescent boys and girls classified as overweight increased from 31% in 2006 (both genders) to 38 and 35% in 2018, respectively. In the case of the adult pre-obesity target, the envisioned reduction in prevalence from 36 to 33% was not secured and instead the rate of pre-obese adults remained constant, with adult pre-obesity prevalence reported at 35.7% in 2019.

As regards the adult obesity target and the child overweight target, not only were the envisioned reductions (from 22 to 18% for adult obesity and 32 to 27% for child overweight) not realised, but prevalence increased substantially when compared to the rates at the start of the implementation period. Adult obesity registered an increase of around six percentage points, with 28.1% of the population aged 15+ being classified as obese in 2019. The child overweight indicator rate increased to 33% in 2019 and 35.4% in 2022 (preliminary results).

Foor funding, questionable priorities and weak legislation

During the course of the investigation, stakeholders complained of limited State funding for initiatives to combat obesity, weight management programmes and lack of suitable candidates to work in this field. Furthermore, the decision to exclude free medication in cases involving complex obesity cases was also criticized. Another issue flagged up was the lack of follow-up studies to determine whether weight loss was maintained once the programme was completed. From a legal perspective, concern was expressed that the legislative changes implemented did not go as far as originally intended and hence their effectiveness to combat obesity was rather limited.