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Obesity – The Ticking Time Bomb

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Obesity is defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health. A body mass index (BMI) over 30 is considered obese while BMI over 25 to 30 considered as overweight. BMI is a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters.  According to World Health Organization (WHO) Obesity has grown to epidemic proportions around 3 to 4 million people dying each year because of being obese or overweight. According to the literature, 8 percent of global deaths were attributed to obesity in 2017. The increasing rate of obesity is reported from all both developed and developing countries in the world.  According to World Population Review, the number of obese people in the world total is approximately 2.1 billion that is 30 percent of the total population.  Nearly 13 percent of adults are obese in the world, and 39% adults are overweight. Research studies report that the prevalence of overweight or obese children and adolescents aged 5 to19 years increased from 4% to 18% globally since 1975 to 2016.  One in five children and adolescents are overweight globally. Except the regions of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, more people are obese than underweight in all other regions of the world.

Figure 1: Obesity among adults, 1975 – 2016

Source:  https://ourworldindata.org/search?q=obesity

Figure 2: Share of deaths attributed to obesity.

Source: World Population Review, 2021

Earlier, obesity was considered as a problem only in high-income countries, but now it is dramatically on the rise in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings. For instance, the United States and United Kingdom, the most economically rich and developed countries are only ranked 12th and 36th, respectively, among the obese nations.  The top ten obese countries are mostly the small economies and not well-developed nations. They are Nauru, Tonga, Samoa, Kuwait, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Kiribati, Palau, Micronesia, a Tuvalu.  The least obese countries in the world have obesity rates lower than 2%. The five least obese countries in the World are Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Eritrea and Madagascar.

WHO reveals that the vast majority of overweight or obese children live in developing countries and it is more than 30% that of developed countries. Importantly, the increasing obesity has a huge potential of jeopardizing health and bring significant economic impacts, especially for poor nations in the world. WHO reports that over 44% of adults worldwide are obese or overweight, and more than 70% of them live in low or middle-income countries. Further, it highlights that the burden of obesity shifts in the poor and rural areas of these countries with per capita income increases. Over 55 percent of the global rise in obesity is found in rural areas in Southeast Asia, Latin America, Central Asia, and North Africa.  See figure one to understand issue better.

Figure 4: Data on Obesity and overweight.

Overweight and obesity are significant risk factors for non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Figure two shows you the major health impacts of obesity and overweight.  It is essential to understand that the mortality is not the only major impact of obesity. It effects reduced productivity, increased disabilities, increased health care costs, early retirement, as week as reduced free healthy living across the life cycle. All these will impact on human capital production capacities, outcomes, and economic growth in the countries. 

Research studies (eg.  Shekar, Meera and Barry Popkin, 2019) report the estimations of economic costs of obesity. According to the studies, for the United Sates, estimates range from US$89 billion to US$212 billion in total costs. In China it is 3.58 and 8.73 percent of gross national product (GNP) in 2020 and 2025, respectively. Brazil projects a doubling of the obesity-related health care costs from US$5.8 billion in 2010 to US$10.1 billion in 2050. There are studies for the developing countries as well which show the significant effects like productivity loss, early retirement as well as disabilities.

What are the main identified reasons behind increasing rates of overweight and obesity.  Lack of physical exercise, poor diets, shifting eating patterns, rapid change of modern food systems, as well as modern media and marketing related to food with globalization, urbanization, and technological development affected directly and indirectly increasing obesity. Thus, in order to minimize obesity, it may need policies and action plans considering all these factors together. For example, some could be fiscal policies like taxes and subsidies related to certain food and fiber products, food system approaches, educational policies, and childhood nutrition programs. Another could be related to physical activities, transport, and urban designing.  Each country needs to look for the most efficient policy action plan based on the level of issue, resources availability, food behavioral practices, culture, and development.  An immediate action is needed to control obesity and overweight as the rate of obesity is going up.

What can you do as an individual or as a family to prevent obesity and overweight among your family members?  You can easily plan your diet with a proper understanding of the nutrient requirement based on your budget limitations. Cutting down food items with high carbohydrate, sugar and fat are important while looking for better foods with more fiber.  Instant foods, potato chips, sugar -sweetened beverages, unprocessed red meats, as well as processed meats are needed to be avoided as much as possible to control obesity and overweight. Adding more fruits, vegetables, fish, and fresh water would help more to minimize obesity.  You need some physical activities as well.   According to many health research studies about 30-40 minutes of physical activities per day can control your body weight. This does not mean that you have to go to the gym for exercise every day, but you can do a bit of walking, playing, or any other activity that keeps your body and muscle works. For example, just working in your garden, walking 1-2 miles, or doing some active household activities would help you to control weight gain.  Limiting unhealthy foods like refined grains and sweets, potatoes, red meat, processed meat and beverages would be helpful to control obesity. Limiting television time, screen time, other ‘sit time’, and reducing stress and improving sleep time are essential as well. If you dream for a healthy and productive future, you need to act without further delay.

Saman Janaranjana Herath
Saman Janaranjana Herath
PhD (NRE). MBA (Fin). Associate Professor, University of Mount Olive, North Carolina, USA. Writer,



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