Obesity and overweight epidemic – A study from 195 countries over quarter of a century

A new study covering 195 countries over a period of 25 years has reported that global overweight and obese constitute nearly 2 billion adults and children and these individuals suffer several health related problems. Thus nearly one third of the world’s population is overweight or obese. This comes as a direct result of poor diets, lack of exercise and physical activity and rapid urbanization say researchers.

Image Credit: Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock

Image Credit: Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock

The study was published in The New England Journal of Medicine this Monday (12th June 2017) and was compiled by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation with funding from the Gates Foundation. The team of researchers at the University of Washington, looked at data from 68.5 million people between 1980 and 2015. They looked at trends of obesity and also outcomes among the overweight and the obese. The data came from the recent “Global Burden of Disease” study that looks at major diseases and injuries worldwide according to age, sex and the population.

The results show that the obesity numbers have doubled since the beginning of the study in 73 countries. The rise is steady in most other countries too. Women additionally tend to put on more weight than men, the study finds. This was seen among women of all age groups and this is a consistent finding from other obesity studies. Results showed that in 2015, a total of 107.7 million children and 603.7 million adults were obese worldwide.

The study reveals that the United States has the largest number of obese children and young adults making up for 13% of total. There is a steady increase in the percentage of obese and overweight children which serves as a warning for future health problems in the population as these children reach adulthood. China and India being largest in population had the largest number of obese children with 15.3 million and 14.4 million, respectively.

Adult obesity was greatest in Egypt with 38% of the population being obese. United States had the largest number of obese adults despite its smaller population with 79.4 million (35% of the population) being obese. China has 57.3 million obese adults. Obesity rates were lowest in Bangladesh and Vietnam with only 1% population being obese.

The fastest rise in obesity numbers were in Latin America, Africa and China. In China less than 1% of the population was obese in 1980. Now over 5% of the population is obese making it a fivefold rise. Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea-Bissau – countries of Africa, had the fastest growth in obesity with Burkina Faso rising from one third of a percent in 1980 to 7% now.

Individuals are considered obese when they weigh more than 20% above their ideal weight. Body mass index (BMI) is calculated as weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared. The currently accepted criteria for overweight is defined as body mass index (BMI) levels greater than 25 kg/m2 and obesity as BMI of 30 kg/m2.

This study came into light because of the increasing number of health related problems and deaths caused as a result of being overweight or obese. The commonest problems faced by these individuals include heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancers, stroke and other debilitating chronic ailments. The study showed that of the 4 million deaths, 40% were overweight rather than obese. This means that deaths among overweight is no less important than in those who are obese. Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, who was part of this study, warned that weight gain should not be taken lightly.

The reason for this obesity epidemic according to the paper is not just wealth since obesity has risen in all countries irrespective of their economic standing. There are alterations in the food systems and food environments with increased “availability, accessibility, and affordability of energy dense foods”, irrational marketing of these foods etc. that are major driving factors of this obesity epidemic says the paper. Reduced physical activity and sedentary habits are another major contributor to this menace they write. Dr. Ashkan Afshin, assistant professor of global health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, who led the research, says that there have been interventions and more awareness over the last decade. However how much these interventions have actually helped change the numbers is still to be seen in the long term he added. His team would work closely with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to work a way through this he added.

Some Obesity Facts in the United States

According to the CDC, the yearly cost of obesity in the USA was $147 billion in 2008 U.S. dollars. For an obese person the medical costs are $1,429 higher than those of normal weight says the agency. Further obesity rates are highest among the non-Hispanic black at 48.1% followed by Hispanics at 42.5%. Obesity rates are highest among those aged between 40 and 59 years (40.2%). Higher income groups are more obese than lower income groups with women from higher income groups being more prone to obesity. Education does not seem to have an impact on obesity among Americans says the CDC.

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