The World Is Fat

Andrew Sullivan —  May 30 2014 @ 3:01pm

So says a new global study, which finds that 2.1 billion people are now overweight and 671 million clinically obese. The Economist visualizes some of the report’s findings:

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The gist:

new report published in the medical journal The Lancet found that the highest rates of obesity are in the Middle East and North Africa, but the United States is home to 13 percent of the world’s obese population, a higher proportion than any other country. Lead author Christopher Murray told CBS News that the findings are “pretty grim,” adding that “when we realized that not a single country has had a significant decline in obesity, that tells you how hard a challenge this is.”

To compile the data, researchers combed through surveys, reports and studies from 1980-2013 listing height and weight information for people throughout the world. They found that the percentage of adults with a body-mass index (BMI) of 25 kg/m2 or higher — the threshold for being overweight — rose, for men, from 28.8 in 1980 to 36.9 in 2013, and for women, from 29.8 to 38.

Adrianna McIntyre weighs the report’s implications:

It’s estimated that 3.4 million deaths were caused by overweight and obesity in 2010. The conditions are associated with cardiovascular disease, cancer, arthritis, and kidney disease. Modern medicine can mitigate the symptoms of these diseases — there are drugs that help control blood pressure and cholesterol, for example — but substantial health effects remain, reducing life expectancy and quality of life. …

Science can’t agree on what’s driving the global obesity crisis.

The obvious culprits are higher-calorie diets paired with less active lifestyles — this certainly seems to be the case in the United States — but it’s not clear that those are the only factors driving the global trend. An alternative hypothesis suggests that changes in human microbiomes (the bacteria that line the intestine) could be changing in ways that cause people to gain weight. These bacteria influence the way food is digested; studies have shown that you can make a mouse obese by implanting gut bacteria from an obese mouse. Research into the association between obesity and human microbiomes is still preliminary.

But Keating wonders if the obesity rate isn’t peaking:

It’s not exactly news that the world is getting fatter, and that no country has yet been able to reverse this trend. But, intriguingly, the report also points out that the biggest growth in the prevalence of obesity took place between 1992 and 2002. Since then, it’s been slowing down …

There’s not really data to say for sure yet, but perhaps at a certain level of economic growth, the relationship between affluence and weight gain—caused by more food intake, more prepared food, and less physical activity—starts to change. Or maybe there’s just a saturation point for how overweight a society can get.

And Uri Friedman pulls out one important, troubling detail:

[W]hile some progress has been made in wealthy nations, none of the 188 countries in the Lancet study have recorded significant declines in obesity since 1980. There are “no national success stories,” the authors note. That’s the challenge facing governments around the world. How do you develop a strategy to reverse obesity rates when no country has successfully implemented one yet?