Obesity is a “rising pandemic” afflicting one in 10 people around the world, causing health problems and premature deaths, according to a new study.
Obesity rates have risen over the last three decades in the 195 countries examined by the sweeping study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Monday. In more than 70 countries, including the United States, obesity rates at least doubled from 1980 to 2015. The world’s population of 7.5 billion now includes more than 2 billion people who are overweight or obese, according to the study.
The U.S. rate of childhood obesity is more than 12 percent, the highest among the world’s most populated countries. While obesity is less common in children than adults, childhood obesity rates are climbing faster in many countries.
“This study shows what we know: No country in the globe has reduced overweight or obesity levels,” Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, told The New York Times. “This is astounding given the huge health and economic costs linked with overweight and obesity.”
In general, women had higher rates of obesity than men at all ages, according to researchers who prepared the report through the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. The study, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, analyzed others’ research.
The study defines adult obesity as having a body mass index ― a number derived from weight and height ― greater than 30, and overweight as having BMI of 25 to 29. Those definitions also are used by the National Institutes of Health. International Obesity Task Force ranges were used to define child obesity.
Using those measures, nearly 108 million children and 604 million adults are obese, according to the study.
Alarmingly, the study found that excess weight accounted for about 4 million deaths worldwide in 2015, a 28 percent increase in the global death rate since 1990. More than two-thirds were caused by cardiovascular disease. Diabetes was the second-leading cause of death.
Obesity rates jumped in both poor and wealthy countries, “which indicates that the problem is not simply a function of income or wealth,” the study says. The decline in activity preceded sharp increases in obesity, so that is unlikely to be a main cause, the authors noted.
Instead, the study suggested that major drivers in the obesity trend are food systems and eating habits, including “increased availability, accessibility, and affordability of energy-dense foods, along with intense marketing of such foods.”
Some recent research has shown a relationship between a lower risk of death and being overweight, but not obese. But authors of the new study found that 39 percent of the 4 million deaths in 2015 occurred among people who were in the overweight BMI range.
The authors pointed to suggestions to lower obesity rates, but said those programs needed more evaluation. They had little optimism for the immediate future:
During the past decade, researchers have proposed a range of interventions to reduce obesity. Among such interventions are restricting the advertisement of unhealthy foods to children, improving school meals, using taxation to reduce consumption of unhealthy foods and providing subsidies to increase intake of healthy foods, and using supply-chain incentives to increase the production of healthy foods. ... In recent years, some countries have started to implement some of these policies, but no major population success has yet been shown. … In 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for zero increase in the prevalence of overweight among children and in the prevalence of obesity among adults. However, given the current pace of increase and the existing challenges in implementing food policies, achieving this goal appears unlikely in the near future.