Obesity: More than a billion people affected worldwide

Obesity: More than a billion people affected worldwide

The number of people with obesity is increasing worldwide. © smartboy10/ iStock

More and more children and adults are severely overweight. This is shown by a global analysis that evaluated the nutritional status of people from 200 countries and regions around the world. Projections based on data from 222 million people show that more than one billion people worldwide suffered from obesity in 2022. The number of underweight people, however, has decreased in almost all countries compared to 1990.

Underweight and overweight are two forms of malnutrition, both of which are associated with significant negative health consequences. One of the sustainable development goals set by the United Nations in the 2030 Agenda is therefore to combat all forms of malnutrition. The basis for effective measures is information about which areas require particular action. However, a current, global analysis on this topic has so far been missing.

Data from 200 countries worldwide

In collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO), an international research consortium has now determined how the nutritional status of the world’s population has developed since 1990. To do this, the researchers evaluated 3,663 population-representative studies from 200 countries and regions around the world, which included a total of 222 million adults and children aged five and over. Depending on how many studies the team found from each country, the results are sometimes subject to considerable uncertainty.

Overall, however, it is clear that obesity has become the most important form of malnutrition worldwide. While in the early 1990s malnutrition was the bigger problem, especially in low-income countries, the picture has now changed. In countries such as Polynesia and Micronesia, the Caribbean and the Middle East and North Africa, obesity rates are now higher than in many industrialized European countries. Polynesia and Micronesia even top the list of countries with the largest proportion of overweight people: more than 60 percent of adults here are obese. At the same time, the proportion of undernourished people worldwide has decreased significantly.

More overweight people than underweight people

Among adult women, the proportion of people with a body mass index (BMI) of over 30 kg/m2 more than doubled between 1990 and 2022, from 8.8 percent to 18.5 percent, and among men from 4.8 percent almost tripled to 14 percent. In contrast, the proportion of underweight people has more than halved, from 14.5 percent to 7 percent for women and from 13.7 percent to 6.2 percent for men. Underweight is still widespread in many African and Southeast Asian countries, especially in Eritrea, Ethiopia and East Timor. In Bangladesh, on the other hand, where one in two women was underweight in 1990, today only about one in eight women are underweight, while almost as many are overweight. According to the data, around one in five adults in Germany is obese, while being underweight hardly plays a role.

The researchers are also observing a similar trend among children. While in 1990 only 1.7 percent of girls and 2.1 percent of boys were severely overweight, the proportion has quadrupled to 6.9 percent for girls and 9.3 percent for boys by 2022. At the same time, the proportion of underweight girls fell from 10.3 percent to 8.2 percent, and among boys from 16.7 percent to 10.8 percent. The countries with the highest proportions of underweight children were India, Sri Lanka and Niger. The analysis records the highest obesity rates in the Cook Islands and the South Pacific island state of Niue, where more than 30 percent of children are severely overweight.

Combat malnutrition

In total, around 159 million children and young people and 879 million adults will be living with obesity in 2022 – a total of more than a billion people. “It is very worrying that the obesity epidemic that was seen in adults across much of the world in 1990 is now being seen in school-age children and adolescents,” says lead author Majid Ezzati from Imperial College London. “At the same time, malnutrition still affects hundreds of millions of people, particularly in some of the world’s poorest regions. To successfully combat both forms of malnutrition, we must significantly improve the availability and affordability of healthy, nutritious food.”

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus added: “This new study highlights the importance of preventing and managing obesity from childhood to adulthood through healthy diet, physical activity and appropriate care. To achieve global goals to reduce obesity, governments and communities must take action, supported by evidence-based actions from WHO and national health authorities. It is also important to work with the private sector, which must be held responsible for the health effects of its products.”

Source: NCD Risk Factor Collaboration, The Lancet, doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(23)02750-2

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