Obesity rates are climbing steadily around the world

The world's population of overweight and obese people is steadily rising.Obesity has long been a problem in the United States, but it has now become a major issue in developing countries as well, creating a worldwide health epidemic. According to a report from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a British think tank, rates of obese and overweight people – those with a body mass index of 25 or more – are increasing at alarming rates all around the globe.1

In the developing world, the obese and overweight population nearly quadrupled between 1980 and 2008, going from approximately 250 million people to more than 900 million. And it isn’t just the developing world that is driving the increase. Higher income countries also experienced a 70 percent increase in obese and overweight adults during that same timeframe.

Nearly one-third of the world is overweight

While most of the findings in the ODI report were cause for concern, its assessment that nearly 1.5 billion of the world’s adults, roughly one-third of the total, are overweight or obese.2

There are several factors that have contributed to the sharp rise in obese and overweight people. However, the two most cited reasons were changing diets and increasingly sedentary lifestyles. The shift to diets based more on meat, fat and sugar around the world, but especially in developing countries, has been a product of rising incomes that have allowed people to abandon cereals and tubers for richer foods.

Meanwhile, the transition from an agrarian to an urban society most places in the world has also brought about changes in work and lifestyle that encourage more sedentary activities. More people work in offices or on factory lines where very little physical movement is required of them. Then they go home to watch television or use their computers.

Added up, it’s causing not only sharp weight increases among the world’s population, but also an enormous rise in the number of weight-related diseases and ailments, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Shifting imbalance

Over the nearly 30 years covered in the report, the developed world accounted for most of the overall weight gain in the early period of the study. But that gradually, and then dramatically, shifted to the developing world. Countries whose residents had previously been too poor to afford richer food items suddenly found themselves able to do so, and cheaper versions of those products began flooding those markets.

“What has changed,” according the report’s authors, “is that the majority of the people who are overweight or obese today can be found in the developing, rather than the developed, world.”

Part of the reason for that change has been the introduction and rapid expansion of fast food franchises around the world. But that is only one factor out of many that have contributed to this scary trend.

Disturbing trend seen all over the world

Few if any parts of the world are immune from this growing weight trend.3 North American and European countries, which are generally classified as developed, high-income regions, still lead the world in the percentage of their population that is classified as overweight or obese. However, Latin America and the North Africa/Middle East region are now close behind, and even some of the poorest places on Earth, including Sub-Saharan Africa, have experienced staggering increases in obesity rates in recent years.

Nonetheless, the ODI also notes that undernourishment and malnutrition are still endemic to certain parts of the world, highlighting a discord between the needs of some and the overindulgence of the many.

Effects on the health care industry

For anyone in the health care industry, whether they be a physician, a certified medical assistant or a pharmacy technician, this spike in overweight and obese individuals will likely have an enormous impact on their careers for years to come. With numerous preventative health policies having been put in place by governments and employers over the past decade or so, many people are much more aware of the necessity of avoiding unhealthy choices.

Nonetheless, obesity seems to be one problem that people are still having a very difficult time curbing. The possible negative health consequences for society in general are myriad. Aside from more cases of cancer and diabetes, the sedentary lifestyles cited in the ODI report also indicate that other physical ailments, including bone weakness, cramping and muscle aches, will become more prevalent.

Despite the ever greater public awareness of the dangers of obesity, its growth continues to persist. That means health professionals will not only have to deal with the consequences, but work harder on the front lines to dissuade their patients from engaging in behaviors that perpetuate the problem.

Anyone training to become, or interest in becoming, a health professional should be prepared to become a soldier in the battle against this important and dangerous health problem.

1 Nicks, Denver, “Study: Obesity Rates Have Surged in Developing World,” Time Health and Family, Jan. 3, 2014. http://healthland.time.com/2014/01/03/study-obesity-rates-have-surged-in-developing-world/
2 “Obesity rates Tripled in Developing Countries – Survey,” RT.com, Jan. 3, 2014. http://rt.com/news/obesity-developing-world-triples-124/
3 “Obesity Quadruples to Nearly One Billion in Developing World,” BBC News, Jan. 3, 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-25576400

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