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Obesity epidemic

Obesity is now a global pandemic

50 percent of the world's 671 million obese people live in ten countries
62 percent of the world’s obese individuals live in developing countries
Rates of overweight and obesity rose from 29 percent to 37 percent among men and from 30 percent to 38 percent among women

Obesity is a major public health epidemic in both developing and developed nations, claim researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, Seattle. They made the claim following the publication of a study, 'Global, regional, and national prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adults during 1980—2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013, in The Lancet that showed that in the past three decades the number of overweight and obese people worldwide has jumped from 857 million to 2.1 billion.

"Obesity is an issue affecting people of all ages and incomes, everywhere," said IHME Director, Dr Christopher Murray. "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."

The study also found that more than 50 percent of the world's 671 million obese people live in ten countries: the United States, China, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Egypt, Germany, Pakistan and Indonesia. The US has the highest proportion of the world's obese people (13 percent), whilst 62 percent of the world’s obese individuals live in developing countries.

The study was led by Professor Emmanuela Gakidou from IHME and included a team of international researchers, who carried out a search of the available data from surveys, reports, and the scientific literature (n=1,769) to track trends in the prevalence of overweight and obesity in 188 countries in all 21 regions of the world from 1980 to 2013.

"Politicians can no longer hide behind ignorance or confusion" - Professor Klim McPherson


Rates of overweight and obesity rose from 29 percent to 37 percent among men and from 30 percent to 38 percent among women. Rates of overweight and obesity among men were higher in developed nations, while rates among women were higher in developing nations.

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

Rates of overweight and obese children worldwide rose by nearly 50 percent between 1980 and 2013. In 2013, more than 22 percent of girls and nearly 24 percent of boys in developed nations were overweight or obese. The rates in developing nations were nearly 13 percent for both boys and girls. The researchers also found that peak obesity rates are occurring at younger ages in developed nations.

"Unlike other major global health risks, such as tobacco and childhood nutrition, obesity is not decreasing worldwide,” said Gakidou. “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% reported in some developing countries."

In adults, estimated prevalence of obesity exceeded 50% in men in Tonga and in women in Kuwait, Kiribati, Federated States of Micronesia, Libya, Qatar, Tonga, and Samoa. Since 2006, the increase in adult obesity in developed countries has slowed down.

In high-income countries, some of the highest increases in adult obesity prevalence have been in the US (where roughly a third of the adult population are obese), Australia (where 28% of men and 30% of women are obese), and the UK (where around a quarter of the adult population are obese).

"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,” added Gakidou. “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."

“To prevent unsustainable health consequences, BMI needs to return to what it was 30 years ago,” said Professor Klim McPherson from Oxford University. “Lobstein calculated that to reduce BMI to 1980 levels in the UK would require an 8% reduction in consumption across the country, costing the food industry roughly £8.7 billion per year. The solution has to be mainly political and the questions remain, as with climate change, where is the international will to act decisively in a way that might restrict economic growth in a competitive world, for the public's health? Nowhere yet, but voluntary salt reduction might be setting a more achievable trend. Politicians can no longer hide behind ignorance or confusion."

The study was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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