SEATTLE, Washington — We all know the world is getting heavier, but here’s the scary truth: the problem is reaching epic proportions — so much so that no single country in the world has seen a drop in obesity rates over the last three decades.
Today, 2.1 billion people — nearly one-third of the world’s population — are either overweight or obese. Globally, that breaks down to an estimated 37 percent of adults and 14 percent of children. Among kids, rates of overweight and obesity have increased nearly 50 percent in the last 33 years, setting these children up for a lifetime of preventable health issues.
A recent Lancet study shows that the rise in global obesity rates since 1980 has been rapid, substantial and widespread in both the developed and the developing worlds. While rates in developed countries have begun to stabilize, rates of both overweight and obesity remain on the rise in the developing world; nearly two-thirds of the word’s obese live in the world’s poorest countries. This problem is only expected to intensify as incomes in low and middle-income countries rise.
This is a serious and rapidly shifting public health crisis: being overweight or obese is now linked to more deaths worldwide than being underweight. About 3.4 million people die each year from being overweight or obese. These conditions provide the underlying cause for common non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Several factors have contributed to rising obesity rates. For many low-income families, a healthy diet is neither affordable nor accessible. In some countries, governments subsidize empty carbohydrates such as bread and corn, inluencing unhealthy eating. In other places, it’s just cheaper to buy a high calorie, low-nutrient meal.
In wealthier countries, physical activity is less common. Sprawl requires transportation, and near constant reliance on technological innovations to connect to the world; actual exercise is easy to avoid. Healthy food and exercise are increasingly a privilege enjoyed by the upper class that can afford to buy expensive fruits and vegetables and costly gym memberships.
Obesity is preventable. Effectively addressing the obesity epidemic will require a comprehensive approach to addressing behavioral trends that show no signs of abating. Governments, armed with data must take positive steps to tackle this problem head-on.
Solutions and strategies will differ depending on unique country needs. In developed countries, leaders in education have to improve physical activity and diet in schools. Urban planners must ensure that walking and biking trails are available to encourage people to exercise. And governments must invest in health programs that emphasize health and prevention to mitigate the rising financial burden of costly cures.
In developing countries, ministries of agriculture must subsidize the right foods and help diversify diets with fruits and vegetables while still ensuring profits. Education is needed to help families make good choices.
We know that governments can use evidence-based practices to curb obesity and promote healthy lifestyles.
Instead of subsidizing unhealthy food, they can subsidize fruits, vegetables and whole grains. They can incentivize food companies to offer healthy alternatives, such as making fruit available in fast food restaurants and cafeterias in schools and workplaces. Studies show people will choose healthy food options if they are available.
Yet, governments alone cannot solve this problem. Industry has a critical role too. They can stop aggressively marketing unhealthy foods, clearly label products and limit portion sizes. They can also cut out unhealthy ingredients and consider introducing healthier, new products.
Stemming the tide of obesity is not impossible. Research has revealed powerful evidence and tools for tackling this crisis, but commitments are essential to create change and save lives. Let us all move and eat right, and let all governments, industry and other partners do their part.
Dr. Ali Mokdad is director of Middle Eastern Initiatives at The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and co-author of the new Global Burden of Disease Study, analyzing trend data on overweight and obesity from various countries.