Today marks World Obesity Day, an annual event that highlights one of the key risk factors for chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Obesity is not limited to only high-income countries like the US and those in Europe. More than two-thirds of obese people now live in developing countries—numbering nearly 900 million people, compared to 557 million in developed countries.
These growing rates are alarming given that many of these same countries suffer another burden: malnutrition. Up to a third of infants in the developing world are stunted, but over-feeding is also not the answer.
The reasons for rising rates of obesity are multi-factorial, but are primarily due to rapid population growth and urbanization, globalization, increased sedentary lifestyle, and rising incomes that enable more people to afford processed foods.
The rising prevalence of obesity will lead to a huge increase in the number of people suffering from heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, which will put an enormous burden on already ill-equipped healthcare systems in developing countries. The interventions to tackle obesity are well-documented but also politically polarizing. Taxes on commodities such as soda—which has been linked to obesity—face stiff opposition from the food and beverage industry. Policies that control the content of fat and salt in food items distributed nationally also run into intense lobbying.
As one example of the effectiveness of these policies, Finland implemented comprehensive food policies in the 1970s, one of which reduced the amount of salt in the national food chain by one-third. It then saw a 75% decrease in both stroke and mortality, as well as an increase of 5-6 years in life expectancy. These impressive changes have been extensively studied and were largely attributed to the food policy reforms that Finland enacted.
Concerns over obesity led to a UN summit on NCDs in 2011, where the World Health Organization (WHO) was commissioned to set targets to reduce obesity globally. It set a goal that by 2025 there would be no increase in obesity or diabetes beyond the levels of 2010. However, the most recent statistics suggest that this target will not be met. In 2010, 11.5% of all adults aged 18+ worldwide (565 million) were obese. By 2014, this number had already increased to 13% (670 million). If this trajectory does not change, 17% of all adults will be obese by 2025. Furthermore, 2.7 billion people will be overweight by 2025, up from 2 billion in 2010.
Multinational companies are using aggressive marketing strategies to reach further and further into developing countries, even among the lowest-income populations. Though obesity rates are starting to level off in countries like the US, they are rising uncontrollably in developing countries.
Like climate change, the public health community knows the answers to the obesity crisis. To prevent obesity, there will need to be tough government action to control the promotion of junk food to children, and ensure increased access to healthier foods such as fruits and vegetables, and also through encouragement of increased physical activity. The key obstacles to address will be addressing political will, as well as availability of high-quality evidence that can make a compelling case for these policies in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).
Unless governments worldwide take urgent, focused action to implement the policies recommended by the WHO to reduce obesity rates, the global community will be unable to meet the targets it set to meet by 2025.