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Obesity now affects more than a billion people

The world’s weight map is being redrawn. Over the past three decades, obesity rates have skyrocketed globally, while undernourishment remains a challenge in some regions. This dramatic shift reflects changes in our diets and lifestyles, impacting people of all ages. 

Alarmingly, over a billion people are now classified as obese, according to research by the NCD Risk Factor Collaboration. This calls for a global focus on tackling this pressing health issue.

In a massive analysis involving data from over 3,600 studies, the researchers examined the weight trends of 222 million people across 200 countries over a 32 year period, from 1990 to 2022. 

The team meticulously tracked both underweight and obesity rates across different age groups – children, teens, and adults. This in-depth analysis allowed them to observe how these weight issues shifted geographically and over time. 

Obesity in children and adolescents

For the younger demographic, including children and adolescents, the increase in obesity rates is particularly striking. Among children and adolescents, obesity rates increased from 1.7% to 6.9% for girls and from 2.1% to 9.3% for boys from 1990 to 2022. This suggests that by 2022, the obesity rates had quadrupled. 

The dramatic rise signifies not only an immediate health concern but also indicates potential long-term health challenges, as obesity in youth often transitions into adulthood.

Adult obesity

The situation among adults is equally concerning, with obesity rates witnessing a substantial surge over the last three decades. 

For women, the rate of obesity has more than doubled. This increase is significant, reflecting broader societal, environmental, and possibly genetic factors contributing to the global obesity epidemic. For men, the scenario is more severe, with obesity rates nearly tripling. 

Although the global trends show a decrease in the number of underweight people, the problem isn’t evenly spread. In 2022, countries like India, China, Japan (for women only), Indonesia, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh still had a high number of underweight adults.

There’s good news and bad news here. The decrease in underweight adults is a positive sign. It means many areas of the world have improved access to food, better economies, and stronger public health programs. But, the bad news is that some regions, particularly in South Asia and Africa, still have a lot of underweight people. 

This shows that undernourishment remains a challenge in these areas. Food insecurity, limited access to healthy food, and economic limitations that make it hard to buy or find good food are all problems these regions face.

A dual burden

Evidently, growing numbers of people are overweight at the same time that others are still not getting enough to eat. This “double burden” of malnutrition shows how our world faces two big problems related to food, even though they seem opposite. 

Obesity, from having too much fat, and undernutrition, from not getting enough calories or nutrients, are both caused by unhealthy diets. They’re signs of deeper problems in how food is grown, shared, and eaten.

Managing obesity

“This new study highlights the importance of preventing and managing obesity from early life to adulthood, through diet, physical activity, and adequate care, as needed,” noted Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. 

In addition to lifestyle changes, some people with existing health problems linked to obesity may require medical treatment. Healthcare systems should offer proven treatments for obesity and related conditions, including medications, therapy, and sometimes even surgery.  For long-term success, these treatments must be accompanied by supportive counseling and follow-up care.

Addressing underweight challenges

Addressing the underweight issue requires a multifaceted approach. Governments and international organizations must collaborate to ensure food security. This encompasses not only the availability of food but also its accessibility and affordability. 

We must invest in producing more nutritious foods, implementing policies that make healthy options cheaper, and establishing social safety nets to protect those most at risk of undernutrition.

Furthermore, public health initiatives should prioritize nutrition education. This ensures individuals and communities understand the importance of a balanced diet and are equipped with the knowledge to make healthier food choices

The study is published in the journal The Lancet


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