According to the findings in a new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine on the 12th of June, there are currently over two billion people around the world affected by weight problems. The shocking results of the research show that more people are dying from weight-related health conditions today than ever before. According to the authors, who describe this development as a “growing and disturbing global public health crisis,” it’s not the obesity epidemic anymore—it’s now the obesity pandemic.
These are the alarming conclusions of the new report compiled by researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in Seattle. As the team’s research reveals, over 30 percent of the human population is currently either overweight or obese, where being overweight is defined as having a body mass index (BMI, the standard measure of quantifying muscle, fat, and bone in an individual) between 25 and 29.9, and being obese as having a BMI above 30.
If these results can be viewed as a reaffirmation of something that we have been aware of for a while, the same cannot be said of the segment of the research analyzing the extent of the associated health consequences. The study shows that, of the approximately four million deaths attributed to excess body weight in 2015, around 40 percent happened to people whose BMI fell below the obesity threshold and within the overweight category. This finding defies previous research which suggested that being overweight (but not obese) was associated with lower mortality rates, implying less risk. “The new finding makes much more sense given what we know about the physiological ramifications of overweight and obesity,” Christopher Ochner, a researcher at HCA-Physician Services Group said when interpreting the results for Gizmodo.
In a statement about the study, co-author Christopher Murray says: “People who shrug off weight gain do so at their own risk—risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and other life-threatening conditions. Those half-serious New Year’s resolutions to lose weight should become year-round commitments to lose weight and prevent future weight gain.”
The data used for the study was colected around from a sample involving over 68.5 million people. The researchers used data from the 2015 Global Burden of Disease Study, which involved more than 2,300 collaborators in 133 countries. The team was looking for trends in the prevalence of weight problems among children and adults from 1980 to 2015, while also looking at the associated health risks.
Globally, there are now 107,7 million obese children and 603,7 million obese adults, according to the findings. The prevalence of obesity has doubled in more than 70 countries since 1980. More adults are obese than children, but the rate of increase is higher among children. In particular, there’s been a tripling of obesity in youth and young adults in developing, middle-class countries, such as China, Brazil, and Indonesia. The most worrying aspect of such findings is that overweight children are at higher risk for the early onset of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and chronic kidney disease.
Amongst the most populous nations, the highest rate of childhood obesity was found in the United States at nearly 13 percent, while Egypt ranked at the top of the list for obese adults at about 35 percent.
According to a statement by the authors in an accompanying NEJM editorial, this study “offers a discouraging reminder that the global obesity epidemic is worsening in most parts of the world and that its implications regarding both physical health and economic health remain ominous.”
According to William Dietz, a professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., the global reach of obesity has much to do with the westernization of the global diet. “Indigenous diets are being replaced by diets consisting of highly processed foods and containing excess amounts of salt and added sugar,” he told Gizmodo. “Juices and soft drinks are an important contributor to the problem.”
But while the overall rate of death is rising, it is important to note that obese people are living healthier and longer than ever before. According to the researchers, this is the result of better healthcare and risk management strategies.
In terms of its weaknesses, the study’s limitation is that its estimates assume a global view of mortality— a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t take differences among populations into considerations. For example, at any given measure of BMI, Asians have a higher risk of diabetes and hypertension, while African Americans have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease than other groups. It would be important for future research to include a breakdown of obesity rates and associated diseases by country or ethnic group.
Some scientists also warn that BMI should not be seen as the sole determinant of a person’s health. “Our behaviors are much more important,” Jean-Philippe Chaput, a research scientist at Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group, told Gizmodo. “Many lean people have poor health and many obese people have optimal health. Looking at numbers on a scale is not enough and I would never advise an obese person to lose weight if his blood pressure, glucose levels, mental health, etc. are fine.”