More than two billion people worldwide are overweight or obese

In the last three decades, obesity has increased in almost every country in the world, among adults and children alike. Great Beyond/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

An new analysis of world population data shows the number of people across the world who are overweight or obese has grown by 28% in adults and 47% in children in the last 33 years.

Among high-income countries, Australia and New Zealand have seen the greatest increases in obesity. It shows the highest increase in the prevalence of adult obesity has been in the United States (33%), Australia (28% of men and 30% of women) and the United Kingdom (25%).

Published in The Lancet today, the Global Burden of Disease study shows the global figure grew from 857 million in 1980 to 2.1 billion in 2013.

A disturbing trend

Obesity has increased in almost every country in the world, among both adults and children. But more than half of the planet’s obese people live in the United States (more than 13%), China and India (15% combined), Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Egypt, Germany, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

Indeed, the largest number of obese people live in the developing world, with the top ten countries including China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan and Indonesia.

There’s wide variation in the rates of increase across countries, but the most rapid increases were seen in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Honduras, Bahrain, New Zealand, Kuwait and the United States.

In children, prevalence of overweight and obesity increased from around 17% (1980) to around 24% (2013) for developed countries and from around 8% to 13% for developing countries. In adults, the greatest increases were observed among 20- to 40-year-olds, with the highest prevalence of obesity moving to younger ages over time.

All other things being equal this foreshadows continuing increases in obesity, alongside health, well-being and productivity complications arising from carrying too much weight at a younger age.

Our neighbourhood

The most recent Australian data shows almost two in three adults and more than one in four children are now overweight or obese. These figures are up from just over one in three adults and one in ten children in the 1980s.

An interactive infographic showing overweight and obesity prevalence in 2013.

The findings support recent suggestions that the rate of increase in obesity may be slowing for adults because the recent increases in the developed world have been slower than they were between 1992 and 2002. While this has previously been reported for children in many developed countries, it’s been less clear for adults.

In Australia, we’ve recently gathered evidence to support the suggestion that the rate of weight gain in adults has slowed. But we also found this trend excluded people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

So while total population trends in body mass index are important, they remain only one part of a larger picture, reflecting continuing high levels and an unequal social distribution of unhealthy diets and inactivity.

What to do?

Knowing how bad things are is one part of the picture. We also need to talk about what we can do to curb this trend.

Imagine an outbreak of an infectious disease, or a leak of a toxic substance, threatening to reach over one-third of the world’s adult population, and over half the adults in high-income countries.

And imagine that this disease or substance was known to increase the risk of a number of life-threatening and disabling diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and arthritis. It’s difficult to imagine that we wouldn’t see concerted and systematic effort to eliminate the risk.

But this is not what’s happening. Action against unhealthy weight gain is still sporadic and disconnected.

The authors note that, like combating climate change, the solution needs to be political but question whether there’s a will to curb economic growth for the sake of public health.

We need strong preventive measures to halt, let alone reverse, growth of obesity worldwide. And we need to prepare for its health and productivity implications.

Many of the countries hardest hit by have limited health-care resources to deal with the consequent increases in obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.

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