More Than Two Billion People Globally Are Overweight Or Obese
May 29, 2014

More Than Two Billion People Globally Are Overweight Or Obese

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Weight gain is quickly becoming the world’s biggest health epidemic as nearly 30 percent of the entire population are either overweight or obese. The rise in global obesity/overweight rates over the past three decades has been significant and widespread, jumping from 857 million people in 1980 to 2.1 billion people in 2013, with nearly a third of those classified as obese.

Overweight is defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) greater than 25 and lower than 30, while obesity is defined as having a BMI equal to or greater than 30. BMI is based on a weight-to-height ratio.

A new study conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, and published in the journal The Lancet, is the first-of-its-kind analysis of trend data from 188 countries around the world.

While obesity and overweightness has been on a startling increase around the world, with a 28-percent increase in adults and a 47-percent increase in children over the past 33 years, the rates vary widely throughout the world with more than half of the world’s 671 million obese individuals living in just ten countries – listed in order of percentage of obesity: the USA, China, India, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Egypt, Germany, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

Over the past three decades, the highest rises in obesity levels among women have been in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Honduras, and Bahrain. For men, the highest obesity level rises have been in New Zealand, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the USA.

In the developed world, the highest increases in adult obesity prevalence have been in the USA – roughly one-third of the adult population is now obese. Australia and the UK follow closely, with 29 and 25 percent of the adult population classified as obese, respectively.

The authors of the study warn that the findings present a worrisome picture of substantial rises in obesity and overweightness across the globe and say action is urgently needed to reverse this unhealthy trend.

"Unlike other major global health risks, such as tobacco and childhood nutrition, obesity is not decreasing worldwide,” study author Prof Emmanuela Gakidou of IHME, said in a statement. “Our findings show that increases in the prevalence of obesity have been substantial, widespread, and have arisen over a short time. However, there is some evidence of a plateau in adult obesity rates that provides some hope that the epidemic might have peaked in some developed countries and that populations in other countries might not reach the very high rates of more than 40 percent reported in some developing countries."

"Our analysis suggests that the UN's target to stop the rise in obesity by 2025 is very ambitious and is unlikely to be achieved without concerted action and further research to assess the effect of population-wide interventions, and how to effectively translate that knowledge into national obesity control programmes. In particular, urgent global leadership is needed to help low-and middle-income countries intervene to reduce excessive calorie intake, physical inactivity, and active promotion of food consumption by industry," Gakidou added.

While the obesity/overweight levels rose dramatically between 1980 and 2013, the study authors determined that the greatest weight gains came between 1992 and 2002, mainly among people between the ages of 20 and 40. In developed countries, the prevalence of obesity/overweightness has increased remarkably, from 17 percent in 1980 to 24 percent in 2013 in boys and from 16 percent to 23 percent for girls. In developing countries, similar gains have been found, roughly eight to 13 percent in both boys and girls over the past three decades.

"Obesity is an issue affecting people of all ages and incomes, everywhere," said Dr. Christopher Murray, director of IHME and a co-founder of the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study. "In the last three decades, not one country has achieved success in reducing obesity rates, and we expect obesity to rise steadily as incomes rise in low- and middle-income countries in particular, unless urgent steps are taken to address this public health crisis."

Explaining the findings of the study, Prof Ali Mokdad of the IHME, said that no country is beating the obesity epidemic as it is a relatively new problem.

"It takes a little bit of time to see success stories," he told the BBC’s Pippa Stephens.

In developing countries, there are more obese women than men. The reason for this is women in such regions were multi-tasking, looking after the family and working, and not having any time to manage weight, noted Prof Mokdad.

In the developed world, the roles are reversed – men are more obese than women.

Prof Mokdad said the rates were higher for men in the developed world because of longer commutes to work and spending more time inactive and using computers.

"Over the past decades the modernization of our world, with all the technology around us, has led to physical inactivity on all levels," Prof Hermann Toplak, of the University of Graz, told BBC.

Inactivity has caused self-control to spiral out of control. Both children and adults are not building up enough functioning muscle mass, and “classical eating” has been replaced by “uncontrolled food intake” spread out over the course of the day, Toplak explained.

Obesity levels across the world are of great concern, noted Prof John Newton of Public Health England.

"The challenge of obesity is at the heart of current debate about the health of the nation and we are working closely with local authorities, the NHS and the voluntary and community sector to tackle this complex issue," he told The Telegraph’s Laura Donnelly.

"The rise in obesity among children is especially troubling in so many low- and middle-income countries," Marie Ng, Assistant Professor of Global Health at IHME and the paper's lead author, said in a statement. "We know that there are severe downstream health effects from childhood obesity, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and many cancers. We need to be thinking now about how to turn this trend around."

Perhaps some good news also came out of the study. While obesity/overweight rates have ballooned to an all-time high, the rate of increase in adult obesity in the developed world has started to take a downward turn over the past eight years, with some evidence that more recent birth cohorts are gaining weight more slowly than previous ones.