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 815.

    @809 Andrew
    "A piece of fruit is cheaper than a chocolate bar too"

    Yes,but unfortunately not half as satisfying :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 814.

    So who is responsible for increasing obesity? Yes there is personal responsibility, but what if supermarket shelves and convenient take aways were full of tempting fattening sugary foods, and what if those foods contained ingredients that made you want to eat more and more and these foods where widely and aggresively advertised... Who's faults was it again..?

  • rate this

    Comment number 813.

    Ahh it's using BMI to calculate obesity, how reliable. A measure which does not take into account body proportions or muscle mass - it simply correlates height and mass to determine a rough figure. And rough it is indeed.

    I'm sure the general population is less healthy, though with a growing population we hardly need encourage people to live longer - unless we plan on colonising Mars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 812.

    807 "I don`t care that folk are fat and die young. I do care that taxpayers pay for these fat folks to have treatment on the NHS"

    Why single out fat people?
    NHS pays for aids treatment, sexually transmitted diseases, sports injuries, alcohol-related injuries and diseases, drug abuse injuries etc
    Where do we draw the line on making people fund their own (self-inflicted) diseases and injuries?

  • rate this

    Comment number 811.

    805. durhampolska
    Obese people have no excuse
    Some do, thyroid function and medication can play a part, but thyroid problems affect less than 1% of the population and less than 10% are on medication and not all of that will affect weight.

    Clearly there are some with an excuse but most have only poor eating habits and lack of exercise to blame.

  • rate this

    Comment number 810.

    OMG I've had an epiphany....I love tea with milk & sugar. I just measured out how much sugar that is a day....1/4 cup or 1 cup every 4 days, or 8 cups approx per month and that is 96 cups a year. YIKES

  • rate this

    Comment number 809.

    "People say they can't afford to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, but going for a jog is free.......Losing weight is very very simple, simply use up more calories than you take in"

    Problem is they do a bit of exercise burning say 500 calories then eat a mars bar and fish'n'chips for dinner and wonder why they don't lose weight.

    A piece of fruit is cheaper than a chocolate bar too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 808.

    @785 sorry,sorryandsorry
    "Which one is worse: a fat man or a fat woman?"

    That question is only relevant to someone who is sexist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 807.

    803. paulmerhaba

    I have ginger hair, freckles, wear spectacles, am short, overweight, got bad breath, drink, smoke and go to church everyday. People point at me in the street and shout obscenities every time i leave the newsagents with a copy of the Daily Mail."

    Excellent - but you don't mention your age.
    Are you a baby-boomer as well?

  • rate this

    Comment number 806.

    People feel entitled to instant gratification these days. They eat what they like without thinking of the consequences.
    Then they want even more instant gratification by expecting quick-fix solutions to their weight problem - they go on crash diets that cause rebound weight gain, or seek surgery that gives them permanently impaired digestive systems.
    It's such a childish mindset.

  • rate this

    Comment number 805.

    Fast food is so expensive. You can buy raw ingredients, fruit, veg etc for the same price which will last for weeks. Obese people have no excuse

  • rate this

    Comment number 804.


    Stop being obtuse and go ahead and tell me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 803.

    I have ginger hair, freckles, wear spectacles, am short, overweight, got bad breath, drink, smoke and go to church everyday. People point at me in the street and shout obscenities every time i leave the newsagents with a copy of the Daily Mail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 802.

    lol Judging by the editors picks, the editor him/her self is one of the morbidly obese according to the BMI charts hahaha

  • rate this

    Comment number 801.

    I am using my old cooking books, they have proper recipes in there. Food that is good for you, and also fills you up. No need to munch on biscuits, cakes, crisps ect. I feel alot better and fuller. Try it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 800.

    It can be difficult to prepare a meal every day from scratch, which is why I'm amazed more people don't follow the continental model of making everything on a Sunday and freezing it for the week.

    Other than working out cheaper and healthier than ready meals, it saves you time during the week because all you have to do is bung stuff in the oven. Home-cooked food all week too, what could be better?

  • rate this

    Comment number 799.

    making manufacturers put the number of calories in packaged food/drink in big print would help, give people the info to make a choice
    the calorie values on products are way too small & some products still don't have them - notably alcohol, fruit juice has same calories as Cola, cheese is 400cals per 100g, slice of sliced bread can be 120 so 640 for a cheese sandwich - needs 2hour walk to burn off

  • rate this

    Comment number 798.

    On one hand we are told we are living longer and will have to work longer before we retire and collect our pensions. Then on the other hand we are told unless we do something there will be an obesity epidemic and the resulting health issues could cause premature death.

    Could the "experts" please make up their minds

  • rate this

    Comment number 797.

    Taxation just won't work. What we need to withhold medical treatments at the public's expense for conditions that are clearly the cause of self-inflicted eating disorders. In other words, if you choose to be fat and happy, don't expect the taxpayer to pay for your diabeties and open-heart surgery.

  • rate this

    Comment number 796.

    If you're fat or obese stop eating so much and do a little exercise (medical conditions excepted). You can change if you want problem is you're too lazy.

    Most of the fat kids from my school days who were called fat grew up to be healthy. Perhaps being MORE judgemental of obese people instead of wrapping them in cotton wool will give them a kick up the backside to do something about it.


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