A Big Fat Problem: How more than half the world is set to become obese and why this is dangerous

A Big Fat Problem: How more than half the world is set to become obese and why this is dangerous

Mar 3, 2023 - 16:30
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A Big Fat Problem: How more than half the world is set to become obese and why this is dangerous

Obesity is a term that carries a lot of weight today. A growing number of people across the world are battling this complex disease and going by a new report, more than half of the world’s population will be overweight or obese by 2035.

The report — titled World Obesity Atlas 2023 — published by the World Obesity Federation has some heavy findings that not only put individuals across the globe at a medical risk but also is a concern for world economies.

Let’s take a closer look at what the report reveals and also deep dive into the dangers of obesity.

Weighty issues

The World Obesity Foundation in its report has suggested in its report that 51 per cent of the population will be overweight by 2035, while one in four — around 1.9 billion people — will be obese “if current trends prevail”. For the unaware, the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that those with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 25 are considered overweight, while 30 and above is seen as obese.

The report also added that the rate of obesity is rising particularly quickly among children and in lower income countries. It said that the rate of childhood obesity could double among boys to 208 million and see a 125 per cent increase in girls to 175 million.

A look at how obesity will rise in boys and girls in the next 12 years. Pranay Bhardwaj

The World Obesity Atlas 2023 has also said that almost all of the countries expected to see the greatest increases in obesity in the coming years are low or middle-income countries in Asia and Africa. Nine of the 10 countries with the greatest expected increases in obesity globally are low or lower-middle income states in Africa and Asia. The report explained that this is because of dietary preferences towards more highly processed foods, greater levels of sedentary behaviour, weaker policies to control food supply and marketing, and less well-resourced healthcare services to assist in weight management and health education.

Niger, Papua New Guinea, Somalia, Nigeria and Central African Republic are the least prepared countries to deal with rising obesity, it further said.

This rapid rise of obesity levels across the world will also have an impact on the economy of the world. The report found that the cost of obesity will skyrocket from $1.96 trillion in 2019 to $4.32 trillion by 2035, which would be the equivalent of three per cent of the global Gross Domestic Product — a sum comparable to the economic damage wrought by COVID-19. It predicts North, Central and South America will see the highest economic impact in terms of GDP at approximately 3.7 per cent, while the western Pacific will face the highest costs at $1.56 trillion.

The World Obesity Atlas 2023 has also found said that almost all of the countries expected to see the greatest increases in obesity in the coming years are low or middle-income countries in Asia and Africa. Image used for representational purposes/AFP

Louise Baur, president of the World Obesity Federation, speaking on the findings of the report, said that the data is “a clear warning that by failing to address obesity today, we risk serious repercussions in the future”.

“It is particularly worrying to see obesity rates rising fastest among children and adolescents.”

She added that countries needed to take “ambitious and coordinated action” as part of a “robust international response” to tackle the growing health and economic crisis borne out of obesity. “Governments and policymakers around the world need to do all they can to avoid passing health, social and economic costs on to the younger generation,” Baur added. “If we act together now, we have the opportunity to help billions of people in the future.”

Pervasiveness of obesity

Before we delve into how the rate of obesity has been rapidly rising across the globe, let’s understand what it exactly is. The WHO defines overweight and obesity as “abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health”. It can be measured and identified in a number of ways, but the most widely used method is Body Mass Index (BMI), which uses a person’s height and weight to calculate whether their weight is healthy. BMI is defined as a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of their height in metres. In adults, a BMI over 25 is considered overweight, and over 30 is obese.

While there isn’t an exact figure on how many people — adult and children — are afflicted with obesity, estimates suggest that currently almost 2.3 billion children and adults are living with overweight and obesity. The worldwide obesity rate has nearly doubled since 1980.

Graphic: Pranay Bhardwaj

The WHO has stated that currently, more people have obesity than underweight in every region of the world, with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. This reveals how it’s a common health problem in both developed and developing countries.

The National Health Service, which is England’s healthcare, has stated that around one in every four adults and around one in every five children aged 10 to 11 are living with obesity. Meanwhile, the United States reports that 41.9 per cent of adults and 19.7 per cent of adolescents and children have obesity.

Also read: Tough to Swallow: What is disordered eating that one in five children are struggling with worldwide?

The numbers from India are also worrying: the National Family Health Survey-5 revealed that one in four Indians are obese. Obesity has increased at a national level from 21 per cent to 24 per cent among women, and 19 per cent to 23 per cent among men.

The situation is no better for children across the world either. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the national public health agency of the US, revealed that obesity affected 19.7 per cent of youth ages two to 19 in the years 2017 to 2020. In India, 3.4 per cent of children under five are now overweight compared with 2.1 per cent in 2015-16.

There’s a rise in childhood obesity cases too. Thirty-nine million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2020. Reuters

Reasons for rise in obesity

There are several factors that contribute to having obesity. W Timothy Garvey, MD, a senior scientist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Nutrition Obesity Research Center, told Forbes that the various causes of obesity are complex, involving genetics, societal and environmental factors. “Like many chronic diseases, obesity is (caused by) an intersection between genes and environment,” he said, adding that the environment specifically is likely to contribute to obesity more today than it did a century ago.

Caren Mangarelli, an assistant professor of paediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, agrees. “While the genetic predisposition for obesity has likely always existed among populations, over the course of the last several generations, multiple changes in our environment have occurred that promote weight gain among people,” she told Forbes.

Graphic: Pranay Bhardwaj

One of the major causes of obesity and its rapid spread is the increased consumption of junk and ultra-processed foods, which contain high levels of sugars, sodium, saturated fats and refined carbohydrates food.

Another reason for the increased obese adults and children is the lack of activity and exercise. Children and adults alike are spending more time on their handheld devices and forgoing exercise, which can lead to excessive weight gain. Moreover, longer working hours make it more difficult for people to exercise.

A person’s income and where they live can impact their access to healthy food, suitable medical care and opportunities for a healthy, active life; their environment and life experiences can also affect their mental and emotional health, which can in turn increase a person’s risk of obesity.

Experts also emphasise that people with obesity shouldn’t be blamed for their health condition. “Short-term and chronic stress experienced by all humans, including marginalised communities, can lead to changes in hormones and genetic material such that it promotes fat mass gain and obesity, as well as other chronic diseases,” said Dr Mangarelli. “This [stress] includes the stress of chronic sleep deprivation, poverty or threat of poverty, and systemic racism or other trauma.”

Exercising is the one way to battle obesity. Studies have shown that it takes 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity, five days a week, to improve and maintain your health. Image used for representational purposes/AFP

Risks of living with obesity

As all other chronic diseases, obesity is also dangerous to a person’s well-being. In fact, four million people die each year as a result of obesity, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The condition is connected to numerous other medical illnesses that put a person at risk. Obesity can lead to Type 2 Diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, congestive heart failure, kidney disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. People with obesity are also at a higher risk of having sleep apnea — when a person momentarily stops breathing during sleep.

Also read: Losing weight before midlife may reduce early death risks by 54% in obese people, says study

Obesity has also been linked to infertility in men; it can lead to pregnancy complications and also lead to musculoskeletal disorders such as osteoarthritis — a highly disabling degenerative disease of the joints. Many people affected by obesity often experience depression. Some studies have found a strong correlation between obesity and major depressive disorder. People affected by obesity may often experience discrimination based on their body size. Over time, this can lead to feelings of sadness or lack of self-worth.

Besides these health risks, studies have found that obesity can increase your risk for certain cancers, including breast, colon, gallbladder, pancreatic, kidney, and prostate cancer, as well as cancer of the uterus, cervix, endometrium, and ovaries.

A 2019 study published in medical journal The Lancet had said that a steep rise in obesity in the past 40 years may have increased cancer risk in younger generations. The research had shown that the rate of six of 12 obesity-related cancers such as colorectal, uterine, gallbladder, kidney, pancreatic and multiple myeloma, had increased, particularly in people under the age of 50.

Also read: Obesity is gateway to serious health issues, here’s how you can keep it at bay

All in all, obesity can impact both your physical and mental health. It is time that each one of us takes the matter more seriously and take steps to avoid becoming obese. As World Obesity Federation president Louise Baur said, “It is pertinent to act now to prevent the situation worsening.”

With inputs from agencies

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