Global Obesity Epidemic: New Studies Show How Big A Problem It’s Really Become
Such evidence that the global obesity epidemic is getting worse is about as surprising as the car not starting in a Hollywood horror movie. Last month, the OECD’s Obesity Update 2017 report showed obesity rates among the OECD countries. The U.S. came in number one with a 38.2% rate, as far ahead of second place Mexico (32.4%) as Usain Bolt is in races. New Zealand was third at 30.7%, and Hungary was fourth at 30%. (Japan was last at 3.7%.) At the recent 24th European Congress on Obesity (ECO2017),
Dr. Harry Rutter, a public health expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, showed a black and white photo from decades ago of a swimming pool in Europe where everyone looked trim and fit and said that such a photo wouldn’t exist today. Scientific study after scientific study has shown that obesity has been rising since the big hair days of the 1980’s among adults and children. Take a look at our Global Obesity Prevention Center (GOPC) Country Ranking Tool to see where your country ranks in a race in which you do not want to be fastest.
And now this latest NEJM study is from the Global Burden of Disease 2015 Obesity Collaborators, organized by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The study was actually a compilation of over a thousand different existing studies and data-sets from over 170 countries. The investigators searched these different studies and data-sets that measured the rates of obesity, overweight, and major diseases caused by high body mass index (BMI) in different sample populations around the world. Then they used statistical techniques to extrapolate the different study results to the rest of the world for the years 1980 and 2015. The results were…in a word…big:
- In 2015, an estimated 107.7 million children and 603.7 million adults were obese throughout the world in 2015.worldwide. That’s 5.0% of all children and 12.0% of all adults.
- Obesity rates were higher among women compared to men in all age groups.
- The highest obesity rates were in the 60 to 64 year age group for women and the 50 to 54 year age group for men.
- Obesity rates among children increased at a faster rate than obesity rates among adults.
- Since 1980, obesity rates doubled in 73 countries and have continuously increased in most other countries.
- The countries with the biggest increase in obesity rates? Three countries in Africa: Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea-Bissau.
- The country with the highest adult obesity rates (after adjusting for age distribution differences among countries)? Egypt with over 35% of its adult population with obesity.
- The country with the lowest? Vietnam at 1.6%.
- The country with the highest childhood obesity rates? The U.S. at 12.7%.
- The lowest? Bangladesh with 1.2%.
- The most adults with obesity? China and India..in large part because of their large populations.
- The most children? The U.S. and China.
The study also re-confirmed that obesity kills…a lot:
- High BMI helped lead to 4 million deaths in 2015 or 7.1% of all deaths.
- Of these, the leading cause of death was cardiovascular disease (41%) followed by diabetes.
- Chronic kidney disease and cancers also were common causes of death.
The study also quantified the high amount of suffering caused by obesity using a measure called disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs), which is the number of years lost to impaired function. All of this is not simply because people have gotten lazier or are making worse decisions. With such “big” numbers, something greater is amiss. Too many countries now have broken systems (e.g., too much garbage in food, too much garbage everywhere maybe affecting our metabolism, too much garbage on the Internet, television, in our jobs, and in our daily lives to keep us from eating well, exercising, and sleeping) with the U.S. leading the way. And not enough people are doing anything to change these systems.
To be fair, there indeed are humans who have been calling for greater action. Unfortunately, not enough people are listening to them. For example, former First Lady of the United States (FFLOTUS) Michelle Obama made tackling childhood obesity one of her signature initiatives, but so far, the current U.S. Presidential administration has made no real statements or offered no real plans about the obesity epidemic. Instead, the Trump administration has proposed massive cuts to scientific and public health funding and rolling back the FFLOTUS’s healthy school lunch initiatives, which may be like throwing more toilet paper into an overflowing toilet and is simply “covfefe” in the face of a growing problem.
Also, billionaire philanthropist Mike Bloomberg, who is the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) first global ambassador for Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) and Bloomberg Philanthropies have pushed for policies around the world to reduce intake of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), believed to be a contributor to the obesity epidemic. Their efforts have helped pass SSB taxes in Mexico City and now 8 U.S. locations. Such efforts have been promising but, as Bloomberg has said, alone will not be enough. More country governments, including the U.S. government, have to take much greater action.
So what will it take for everyone in the world to realize that real changes are needed in systems around the world (e.g., improving food systems, food and physical activity environments, economic incentives, etc.)? Does the human population have to hit rock bottom? Will everyone need to roll over in bed one day, see who are unwanted bedfellow is (overwhelming costs and an incapacitated society) and say, “oh my, what have we done?” Waiting until then may be much too late to remove that bedfellow from your bed.