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Overseas obese rates almost reach a billion

Overweight and obese numbers quadruple since 1980

Adrian O'Dowd

Friday, 03 January 2014

The number of people who are overweight or obese in developing countries has almost quadrupled from 250 million to nearly a billion since 1980, according to a report published today.

The Future Diets report from global development think tank the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) says richer nations are also seeing a growth in the numbers of people with the same problems.

The ODI’s review looks at the global scale and consequences of overweight and obesity alongside various governments’ failure to address the problem.

For the report, the ODI analysed public data about what the world eats and globally, the percentage of adults who were overweight or obese – who have a body mass index greater than 25 – grew from 23% to 34% between 1980 and 2008, meaning that more than a third of all adults across the world (1.46 billion) – are obese or overweight.

Between 1980 and 2008, the numbers of people affected in the developing world more than tripled, from 250 million to 904 million, while in high-income countries, the numbers increased by 1.7 times over the same period to 557 million people. It is estimated that the UK’s overweight or obesity rate is 64% of adults.

The report warns that governments are not doing enough to tackle the growing problem, partly because of politicians’ reluctance to interfere, the influence of farming and food lobbies, and a large gap in public awareness of what constitutes a healthy diet.

The data showed that since 1980, overweight and obesity rates have almost doubled in China and Mexico, and risen by a third in South Africa.

One indicator of changing diets was an increase in the consumption of sugar, said the authors, who pointed out that sugar and sweetener consumption has risen by over a fifth per person globally from 1961 to 2009. The world’s highest sugar consumers include the US, Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Costa Rica, and Mexico.

Fat consumption was also an issue and amongst developing countries, the highest consumption of fat was in East Asia and Southern Africa, but industrialised countries still had much higher levels of fat consumption.

ODI research fellow Steve Wiggins said: “The growing rates of overweight and obesity in developing countries are alarming. On current trends, globally, we will see a huge increase in the number of people suffering certain types of cancer, diabetes, strokes and heart attacks, putting an enormous burden on public healthcare systems.”

Report author Steve Wiggins added: “Governments have focused on public awareness campaigns, but evidence shows this is not enough. The lack of action stands in stark contrast to the concerted public actions taken to limit smoking in developed countries.

“Politicians need to be less shy about trying to influence what food ends up on our plates. The challenge is to make healthy diets viable whilst reducing the appeal of foods which carry a less certain nutritional value.”

The report cites successful examples of governments’ changing diets for the better, including the UK’s introduction of rationing during World War II to ensure the poorest people were able to eat a balanced diet, and South Korea’s policies that have led to an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption.

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