The Globesity Epidemic

Several news outlets, including The Washington Post, have recently cited a study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, on obesity in the US. It predicts that the number of obese Americans will rise from the current 34% of the population to 42% by the year 2030. This is less than the 51% that was predicted in another study four years ago, but the new figures still show a worrying trend, one that is expected to add over half a trillion dollars to health-care costs.

Here’s where I’d planned on segueing to a discussion of the growth of obesity around the globe with something like “While the US is the global leader in the overweight category, the obesity epidemic is truly global.” I thought that America’s status as the fattest country was a given, but it’s actually not true. In fact, according to an article published in The Lancet (as reported in LiveScience), the US comes in at about #20. Behind places like Nauru (#1, where over 80% are obese), Samoa, and other island nations in Oceania, as well as Middle Eastern countries, such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Turns out that when we heard that the US was the most obese, that was referring to industrialized countries. But now that the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have climbed up the list, America is no longer tops even in that category.

Anyway, back to “the obesity epidemic is truly global” . . . .

The Harvard School of Public Health reports that worldwide, about 500 million people are obese, with another one billion considered overweight. We now live in a world where there are more overweight than underweight people. And the number of obese in the world is expected to double by 2030.

Fed by globalization, the “globesity epidemic” has several causes affecting low- and middle-income countries:

  • Free trade brings cheaper food and greater access to processed foods.
  • Rising global wealth brings about habits that lead to obesity—including reduced levels of activity, eating outside the home, and buying more processed foods.
  • Urbanization and technological advances lead to a decrease in activity and more sedentary lifestyles.
  • The spread of advertising, on TV and in other media, is pushing the products and eating habits of the West.
  • And increased industrialization produces higher levels of stress and reduced sleep, two factors that are associated with obesity.

Even though the trends are set in place, the Harvard School of Public Health believes that there is room for hope. Education and smart policies can slow the momentum. Low- and middle-income countries need to “learn from the mistakes of higher income countries, which did not recognize the health consequences of modernization until they were already taking a greater toll.” But that would require the ability to distinguish excesses from successes, something that the West has not been very good at.

(David Brown, “Study Predicts 42 Percent of Americans Will Be Obese in 2030,” The Washington Post, May 7, 2012; Christopher Wanjek, “US Loses Its Fat Supremacy,LiveScience, February 8, 2011; “The Obesity Prevention Source: Globalization,” The Harvard School of Public Health)

[photo: “Obesity in the US,” by Global X, used under a Creative Commons license]