Action needed as obesity rises

A new study published in The Lancet has revealed more people in the world are obese than underweight and that by 2025 around a fifth of all adults will be obese.

The findings have drawn international media coverage with commentary sought from The George Institute's Bruce Neal.

Professor Neal, director of the Food Policy Division, said the study highlights huge problem of obesity around the world and very concerning prospects for obesity in many developing economies.

Prof Neal added: “Governments around the world are going to need to take completely different types of action if this issue is to be addressed.  This is a problem of the food environment not individuals, and it is interventions that change the food environment that are required to address it. 

“The world’s population hasn’t turned into sloths and gluttons. What has happened is that we now live in a swamp of low cost, high calorie junk food that is pushed down our throats by sophisticated advertising programs designed to maximise industry profits.

“Industry is only partly to blame, after all, its required to do pretty much whatever it reasonably can to benefit shareholders.  Government ultimately controls what is acceptable corporate behaviour and what is not.  And its government that needs to start taking actions on behalf of the people.

“Strategies based upon education and personal choice are not going to work.  Incentives and disincentives that change the behaviour of the food industry are required. This means subsidies and regulations that support healthy food choices and corresponding taxations and restrictions that control the sale, consumption and advertising of unhealthy products.”

Key findings from the report written by Professor Majid Ezzati, of Imperial College London, include: 

  • In the past 40 years the number of obese people in the world has risen from 105 million in 1975 to 641 million in 2014.
  • Women in Singapore, Japan, and a few European countries including Czech Republic, Belgium, France, and Switzerland had virtually no increase in average BMI (less than 0.2 kg/m² per decade) over the 40 years.
  • More than a fifth of men in India, Bangladesh, Timor-Leste, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, and a quarter or more of women in Bangladesh and India are still underweight.
  • Among high-income English-speaking countries, the USA has the highest BMI for both men and women (over 28 kg/m²). More than one in four severely obese men and almost one in five severely obese women in the world live in the USA.
  • The UK has the third highest average BMI in Europe for women equal to Ireland and the Russian Federation (all around 27.0 kg/m²) and tenth highest for men along with Greece, Hungary, and Lithuania (all around 27.4 kg/m²).
  • Almost a fifth of the world's obese adults (118 million) live in just six high-income English-speaking countries—Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, UK, and USA. Over a quarter (27.1%; 50 million) of the world’s severely obese people also live in these countries (figure 9).
  • By 2025, the UK is projected to have the highest levels of obese women in Europe (38%), followed by Ireland (37%) and Malta (34%). Similar trends are projected in men, with Ireland and the UK again showing the greatest proportion (both around 38%), followed Lithuania (36%). By comparison, 43% of US women and 45% of US men are predicted to be obese in 2025.