According to the 2010 OECD report “Obesity and the Economics of Prevention: Fit not Fat”, at least 50% of the adult population is now overweight (as defined by the World Health Organization as having a body mass index, or BMI, of 25 kg/m² or above) in more than half of the 34 OECD countries, and 500 million people worldwide – 10% of mankind! – are obese (with a BMI of 30 kg/m² or above).

Twice more obese people now than in 1980

The global obesity rates have doubled or tripled since 1980. And, although, the update on this study published three years on shows that the progression of the epidemic has come to a halt in many countries, among which Korea, Switzerland, Italy, Hungary and England, OECD projections still suggest that more than two out of three people will be overweight or obese in some regions by 2020. Indeed, the WHO statistics show that the prevalence of overweight (obesity included) varies nearly tenfold among countries, from a low of 7% in Asia to over 80% in the United States. One quarter of the Chinese population is overweight, 90 million Chinese are obese, and their percentage in the population has risen by 156% between 1996 and 2006. In Australia, Argentina, Canada, Chile, Egypt, Finland, Germany, Mexico, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Uruguay or Venezuela, over than 65% of the people are overweight… as well as more than 65% of the female population of South Africa, Turkey and Belarus.

The progression of overweight and obesity among school-aged children aged 5-17 years is even more worrying as, according to the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 20% children are affected by excess body weight across all countries. In Greece, the United States and Italy the figure is closer to one third of the kids.

Undernourishment and obesity under the same roof: a modern paradox

For the first time in documented history, and probably for the first time in the history of mankind, overweight people outrank starving people: 1.6 billion overweight adults (among which 500 million are clinically obese) against “only” one billion undernourished ones. Overweight and obesity are also now considered responsible for more deaths worldwide than underweight, and 65% of the world’s population lives in countries where excess weight kills more people than undernourishment (this is the case in all high-income and most middle-income countries). As a result, many low- and middle-income countries are now facing a “double burden” of disease: while still tackling starvation and under-nutrition issues and endeavoring to control the death toll from infectious diseases, they also have to deal with an upsurge in obesity and overweight, particularly among their urban populations. Undernourishment and obesity can therefore now be found side-by-side within the same country, the same community and even sometimes the same household.

A noncommunicable diseases risk factor

Obesity has become the second cause of preventable death after tobacco in the United States, where it kills an estimated 200,000 persons per year. According to the WHO, obesity is responsible for one million yearly deaths in Europe, and, on a global scale, overweight and obesity is the fifth leading premature death cause. At least 2.8 million adults die each year as a result of being overweight or obese, and severely obese people pass away 8 to 10 years sooner than their normal-weight counterparts (a decrease in life expectancy similar to that displayed by smokers). A raised BMI is a major risk factor for non communicable diseases (NCD’s) such as cardiovascular diseases (in particular heart disease and stroke, the two leading causes of death), diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders (especially osteoarthritis, a degenerative disease of the joints), and some cancers (endometrial, breast, and colon).

As for childhood obesity, it is associated with a higher chance of obesity, premature death and disability in adulthood. Obese children also experience breathing difficulties, an increased risk of fractures, hypertension, early signs of cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, let alone psychological issues.

The OECD report suggests that implementing comprehensive obesity prevention strategies could help save over 155,000 lives per year in some nations, and also allow for substantial cost cutting as obesity is already responsible for 1% to 3% of most countries’ total health expenditure (and 5% to 10% in the United States) and these costs should be on the rise in coming years as obesity-related noncommunicable diseases set in.

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