2.1 billion people worldwide are overweight or obese

By Karen Kaplan

The world isn’t getting smaller, it’s getting bigger, according to a comprehensive report published May 29 in The Lancet.

Whether you’re looking at men or women, children or adults, citizens of rich countries or poor ones, people were much more likely to be overweight or obese in 2013 than they were in 1980, the study found.

In 1980 — the year Pac-Man was unleashed on the world and John Lennon was assassinated — there were 857 million people on the planet who were either overweight or obese. Thirty-three years later, the comparable figure was 2.1 billion.

It is not just that the global population grew (and thus the number of people with too many pounds on their frames). The proportion of men who were overweight or obese rose from 28.8 percent in 1980 to 36.9 percent in 2013, while the proportion of women in that category increased from 29.8 percent to 38 percent during the same period, the report said.

In developed countries, 16.9 percent of boys and 16.2 percent of girls were overweight or obese in 1980. By 2013, those figures were 23.8 percent and 22.6 percent respectively. Even in developing countries, the prevalence of overweight and obesity among boys rose from 8.1 percent to 12.9 percent and the prevalence among girls grew from 8.4 percent to 13.4 percent, the researchers found.

All over the world, the passage of time was marked by bigger waistlines. “Successive cohorts seemed to be gaining weight at all ages, including childhood and adolescence,” the researchers found. The most rapid period of weight gain came between the ages of 20 and 40.

A few extra pounds may seem harmless, but their cumulative effect is serious, public health experts say. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that being overweight or obese will increase your risk of such life-threatening conditions as coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and certain types of cancer, among other problems. A 2010 study in The Lancet estimated that overweight and obesity caused 3.4 million deaths worldwide.

For the new study, dozens of researchers from around the world worked together to compile accurate statistics for 183 countries. They focused on rates of overweight (defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or greater) and obesity (defined as BMI of at least 30) in the years between 1980-2013. (The massive effort was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which did not influence the study design or its findings.)

Tonga had the dubious distinction of having a majority of the adult population considered obese. In addition, six other countries had obesity rates above 50 percent for women: Kuwait, Kiribati, the Federated States of Micronesia, Libya, Qatar, and Samoa.

The United States earned special mention for its “high prevalence of obesity” — 31.6 percent of men and 33.9 percent of women. The researchers noted that 13 percent of the world’s 671 million obese individuals live in the United States. — more than any other country.

Indeed, more than half of the world’s obese people lived in just 10 countries in 2013: The United States, China, India, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Egypt, Germany, Pakistan, and Indonesia. China and India actually had “low” rates of obesity – only 3.8 percent of Chinese men and 5 percent of Chinese women were obese in 2013, along with only 3.7 percent of Indian men and 4.2 percent of Indian women. However, both countries are so populous that they still came in at number two and number three on the worldwide list.

Perhaps this was the most depressing finding in the entire 16-page report: “No countries had significant decreases in obesity in the past 33 years.”

In a commentary that accompanies the study, epidemiologist Klim McPherson wondered what it would take for the world to get serious about reining in weight gain and returning BMIs to levels to where they were 30 years ago.

“Public health efforts are leading to progress in tobacco control and cardio-protective diets in a slow and deliberate way. As a result, deaths caused by smoking-related diseases and cardiovascular diseases are decreasing,” wrote McPherson, a visiting professor at the University of Oxford. “Can a similar success with weight ever happen?”

Probably not any time soon, he conceded. For policy makers, tackling obesity is like tackling climate change: Experts have a good idea of what needs to be done, but there is simply no political will to make such radical changes.

“Where is the international will to act decisively in a way that might restrict economic growth in a competitive world, for the public’s health?” McPherson wrote. “Nowhere yet, but … politicians can no longer hide behind ignorance or confusion.”

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