More than 2 billion adults and children globally are overweight or obese, a marked increase over the last 30 years that is leading to widespread and severe health problems as well as millions of premature deaths, according to a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The researchers analysed data from 68.5 million persons to assess the trends in the prevalence of overweight and obesity among children and adults between 1980 and 2015. The Global Burden of Disease Study data and methods were used to quantify the burden of disease related to high body-mass index (BMI, the weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters), according to age, sex, cause and BMI in 195 countries.
The study finds that rates of obesity doubled in more than 70 countries and has continuously increased in most other countries globally. 107.7 million children and 603.7 million adults were found to be obese. Although prevalence of obesity among children has been lower than that among adults, the rates of increase in childhood obesity in many countries have been greater than the rate of increase in adult obesity. Additionally, high BMI accounted for 4 million deaths worldwide, nearly 40% of which occurred in persons not qualifying as obese, highlighting the fact that deaths are occurring almost as often in those considered overweight and those considered obese (BMI 25-29.9 is considered overweight, anything over BMI 30 is considered obese). More than two thirds of deaths related to high BMI were due to cardiovascular disease, followed by diabetes, kidney disease and other factors.
Age-standardised prevalence of obesity worldwide in 2015
Source: The New England Journal of Medicine
The prevalence for obesity has increased across all levels of development, which indicates that the problem is not simply linked to income and wealth, according to the authors of the study. Changes in the food environment and food systems are identified as probable drivers of the trend. At the same time, the study shows a greater increase in the rate of exposure to high BMI than in the rate of the related disease burden. This difference is due to improved treatment and the reduction of other risks in high-income countries. However, low- and middle-income countries do not have the means to respond to ever-rising BMIs in the same way and therefore face growing rates of associated deaths and numerous challenges to their already vulnerable health systems.
The probably most troubling finding of the study is the approximate tripling of obesity among youths and young adults in developing, middle-income countries, such as China and Indonesia. An early onset of overweight and obesity is likely to translate into a high incidence of type 2 diabetes, hypertension and chronic diseases of the kidney.
As health systems in developing countries across the Asia Pacific cannot provide enough medications for all people suffering from the associated diseases of overweight and obesity, NCDAPA has been continuously advocating to address the root causes of the problem: the food environment. Interventions such as the restriction of advertisement of unhealthy foods to children, the taxation of sugary food and beverages as well as improved school meals could significantly alleviate the problems of health systems facing the ever-increasing overweight and obesity epidemic.
by Moritz Laqua: Moritz has been working with NCDAPA since 2015. Before joining, he completed a traineeship in GIZ’s corporate development department, contributing to alliance building and strategic partnership management. At NCDAPA he works on external relations and policy, regularly providing articles and updates on political and legal developments within the field of NCDs. Moritz holds postgraduate degrees in Law and International Relations from the University of Munich and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He is currently positioned in Southeast Asia.
Please also see NCDAPA’s articles on childhood obesity and adolescent health: