Number of obese people surpasses underweight

Posted April 10, 2016

For the first time, the world has more obese people than underweight, a new report says. The change presents health challenges for the two fattest countries and threatens to divert resources from countries with the most underweight people. (Deseret Photo)

For the first time, the world has more obese people than underweight, a new report says. The change presents health challenges for the two fattest countries — China and the U.S. — and threatens to divert resources from countries where low body weight remains a problem, the BBC says.

Reporting on the study published April 2 in The Lancet, the BBC said the number of obese people had risen from 105 million in 1975 to 641 million in 2014, creating a global "crisis point," according to lead researcher Majid Ezzati, a professor in the School of Public Health at Imperial College London.

If trends continue, a fifth of the world's population will be obese by 2025, researchers said.

"Global obesity prevalence will reach 18 percent in men and surpass 21 percent in women; severe obesity will surpass 6 percent in men and 9 percent in women. Nonetheless, underweight remains prevalent in the world's poorest regions, especially in south Asia," the report said.

The World Health Organization blames increased consumption of high-fat, energy-dense foods, coupled with inactivity caused by modern lifestyles, for the rise in obesity.

The number of underweight people has also increased, from 330 million to 462 million.

But calculated as a percentage of the population, underweight rates declined, from 14 percent to 9 percent in men, and from 15 percent to 10 percent in women, the BBC reported. "Being underweight remains a significant health problem in countries such as India and Bangladesh," the news service said.

Moreover, the obesity epidemic threatens to eclipse the health issues associated with the underweight and malnourished and create "a fatter, healthier, but more unequal world," wrote epidemiologist George Davey Smith of the School of Social and Community Medicine at the University of Bristol, in an accompanying commentary in The Lancet.

"A focus on obesity at the expense of recognition of the substantial remaining burden of under-nutrition threatens to divert resources away from disorders that affect the poor to those that are more likely to affect the wealthier in low-income countries," Smith said.

Researchers at Imperial College London analyzed the body mass index of nearly 20 million adults in 186 countries and found that obesity in men tripled between 1975 and 2014. In women, obesity doubled.

China has the most obese people: 43.2 million men and 46.4 million women.

The U.S. is not far behind, with 41.7 million obese men and 46.1 million obese women, the BBC said.

But as a percentage of the population, more Americans are obese than Chinese, since China's population exceeds 1.3 billion compared to nearly 324 million in the U.S.

The lead researcher said governments must set policies to help reverse the trend.

"We hope these findings create an imperative to shift responsibility from the individual to governments and to develop and implement policies to address obesity," Ezzati told the BBC. "For instance, unless we make healthy food options like fresh fruits and vegetables affordable for everyone and increase the price of unhealthy processed foods, the situation is unlikely to change."


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