Obesity quadruples to nearly one billion in developing world

Overweight man weighing himself Diets are changing wherever incomes are rising in the developed world

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The number of overweight and obese adults in the developing world has almost quadrupled to around one billion since 1980, says a report from a UK think tank.

The Overseas Development Institute said one in three people worldwide was now overweight and urged governments to do more to influence diets.

In the UK, 64% of adults are classed as being overweight or obese.

The report predicts a "huge increase" in heart attacks, strokes and diabetes.

Start Quote

Changes in lifestyle, the increasing availability of processed foods, advertising... have all led to dietary changes”

End Quote Steve Wiggins Overseas Development Institute

Globally, the percentage of adults who were overweight or obese - classed as having a body mass index greater than 25 - grew from 23% to 34% between 1980 and 2008.

The majority of this increase was seen in the developing world, particularly in countries where incomes were rising, such as Egypt and Mexico.

The ODI's Future Diets report says this is due to changing diets and a shift from eating cereals and grains to the consumption of more fats, sugar, oils and animal products.

A total of 904 million people in developing countries are now classed as overweight or above, with a BMI of more than 25, up from 250 million in 1980.

This compares to 557 million in high-income countries. Over the same period, the global population nearly doubled.

Graph of overweight and obese by region

At the same time, however, under-nourishment is still recognised to be a problem for hundreds of millions of people in the developing world, particularly children.

Using data published in Population Health Metrics last year, the researchers looked at changing overweight and obesity rates across the regions of the world and by individual country.

The regions of North Africa, the Middle East and Latin America saw large increases in overweight and obesity rates to a level on a par with Europe, around 58%.

While North America still has the highest percentage of overweight adults at 70%, regions such as Australasia and southern Latin America are now not far behind with 63%.

Diet linked to income

The greatest growth in overweight people occurred in south east Asia, where the percentage tripled from a lower starting point of 7% to 22%.

Among individual countries, the report found that overweight and obesity rates had almost doubled in China and Mexico, and risen by a third in South Africa since 1980. Many countries in the Middle East also had a high percentage of overweight adults.

One of the report authors, Steve Wiggins, said there were likely to be multiple reasons for the increases.

More meat, fats and sugar is being consumed More meat, fats and sugar are being consumed globally

"People with higher incomes have the ability to choose the kind of foods they want. Changes in lifestyle, the increasing availability of processed foods, advertising, media influences... have all led to dietary changes."

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We need to act urgently to deal with the scandal of millions of cases of extreme hunger and under-nutrition in children”

End Quote Alan Dangour LSHTM

He said this was particularly the case in emerging economies, where a large middle class of people with rising incomes was living in urban centres and not taking much physical exercise.

The result, he says, is "an explosion in overweight and obesity in the past 30 years" which could lead to serious health implications.

This is because consumption of fat, salt and sugar, which has increased globally according to the United Nations, is a significant factor in cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers.

The world's top sugar consumers include the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Costa Rica, and Mexico.

To combat the rising tide of obesity, Mr Wiggins recommends more concerted public health measures from governments, similar to those taken to limit smoking in developed countries.

What makes South Korean food so healthy?

He said: "Politicians need to be less shy about trying to influence what food ends up on our plates.

"The challenge is to make healthy diets viable whilst reducing the appeal of foods which carry a less certain nutritional value."

The report cites the example of South Korea where efforts to preserve the country's traditional diet have included public campaigns and large-scale meal preparation training for women.

Graph of overweight and obese by selected countries

Alan Dangour, a reader in food and nutritional global health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said urbanisation in many parts of the world had changed people's eating habits away from traditional, healthy diets.

But he said obesity and under-nutrition often existed side by side, sometimes in the same household.

"We need to act urgently to deal with the scandal of millions of cases of extreme hunger and under-nutrition in children, but we also need to think what happens if we provide lots of extra calories, containing few vitamins, and encourage excess consumption.

Would people in the UK support a tax on fatty foods?

"Clever, joined-up policies are needed."

A spokesperson from the Department of Health said they recognised that high rates of obesity caused dangerous health conditions and were taking action.

"We are already taking the lead in helping tackle and prevent this challenge, including through the government's Responsibility Deal with industry, NHS Health Checks, the National Child Measurement Programme in schools and through Change4Life.

"For the first time ever, we've given local authorities ring-fenced budgets to tackle public health issues in their local area, including obesity."

The Department of Health also said that industry and health professionals had a role to play in helping people improve their diet and lifestyles.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    One country in the developing world has an obese leader. North Korea, led by Fatboy Kim Jong-Un.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    I wonder if these figures are correct. Because when I walk the streets, I just don't see that many overweight people, and certainly not in the percentages claimed in the article above. It makes me wonder if this is really more about an industry trying to drum up business in the same way psychiatrists now try to characterise everyday human foibles as mental illness.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Health, War, End of Civilization, Hole in Ozone Layer, Global Warming & Climate change, all constitute the fears of the public that the government can use as an excuses to extract more money from us all.

    Perhaps a more useful approach would be to demand that retailers sell good quality food. We chose to eat fat, sugar and salt because we like them, it is built into our natural development.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    And now for the daily lament by those who wouldn't know personal responsibility if it looked like a double cheeseburger (large fries with that please):

    - it's the Gov't wot done it
    - it's the food industry's fault
    - it's a supermarket conspiracy
    - healthy food costs more
    - too many MacDonalds outlets
    - my fridge has me hostage & forces me to open it 10 times a day

    Carp. YOU create your body.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    "The Overseas Development Institute said one in three people worldwide was now overweight and urged governments to do more to influence diets."

    What's it got to do with the Government? We can blame them for a lot of things but because we are fat?! I don't think so. I have a BMI of about 28 and that's no one's fault but my own hence I intend to address it with a diet and light exercise - simple

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    According to the BMI calculator I am obese. Neither myself nor anyone I know would even consider me to be significantly overweight.

    I realise there are many overweight and obese people, but a 'one size fits all' calculation devised by somebody following a set of theories is not the way to classify people's relative fatness.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    People must take responsibility for what they eat.
    It's not up to HMG to tell them.

    I knew I was overweight and even though I have chronic pain and can't walk far I started the 5.2 diet and am losing weight. This helps my body and am not sufferings so much pain.

    My point is if I can do it then anyone can do it. It needs motivation and staying power.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I'm not fat, it's my genes.

    Yeap, you genes eat loads of chips !

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    People blame their excess weight on factors that they perceive to be beyond their control. The bottom line is that they eat more calories than they use.

    The urgent trend is to sympathise and try to make people feel good about their excess weight. Dangerous habits are now being seen as inevitable and just some kind of bad luck.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    1980 - The year when Computers arrived in the home

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    People have eaten rubbish food for decades - and they didn't become obese.

    There is obviously something else at work.

    And judging by the fact that no-one walks anywhere any more - and that our roads are log-jammed - car usage must be playing a major role.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Taxing food isn't the answer, it's already too expensive. Maybe it's time to sell less junk and more good quality, affordable, fruit and veg?

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    You took the food right out of their mouths - it must have been while you were eating and watching TV.

    Greed, plain and simple.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    12. MrSBaldrick ...Good healthy food is prohibitively expensive

    This simply isnt true. A cheap piece of ham, £3.. a soup pack, £1..a bag of spuds and a cabbage a £1 each and you have a huge pot of nutritious healthy soup and a tasty healthy meal as well as enough left over for sandwiches etc. The only expense is peoples time and its this cost that many cant be bothered to expend.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Humans are meant to walk, run, work physically, use their bodies; they are not designed to sit on their backside all day, then drive cars, take lifts etc. Able bodied people have lifestyles almost if they are disabled. This is far more of an issue then food (and I am a very healthy size 8 eater). I also purposefully don't have a car and work on the 5th floor& never take lifts etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Ok its not PC to call a person fat. Its not PC to call a person obese. What do you call someone who is dangerously overweight?

    First of all recognise there is a problem , accept it and take measures to help alleviate it, but dont pretend that it doesn't exist and don't gripe if a person is told to do something about being over weight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Probably a novel virus spread by dodgy economists? Make cheap food more expensive for poor folks and they should lose weight? Could be they'll decide not to go quietly into the night - most revolutions start and end with food price rises. Healthy foods might just go up in price with increased demand - fuelling runaway inflation?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Just 12 comments at the time of writing and already I'm wondering if there's a full moon tonight.
    There is more to being overweight than just being greedy. It's a complex issue which won't be solved by tax or any other simple catchy HYS one liners.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I think that if unhealthy food were to be taxed, the majority of people would still purchase it.

    I like the occasional cider; I know it is bad for me, but I make the choice to purchase it and I would continue to do so, even if it was taxed heavily. The government needs to ensure that school dinners are healthy so that young people adopt a habit of healthy eating. This is a partial solution.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Quite amazing how so many people have been classed as obese since they started using the BMI scale, which was not designed to look at individuals.


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