Although weight issues plague Americans as gravely as anywhere on the planet, obesity also has become a global woe, increasing sharply over the last three decades in 195 countries and afflicting an estimated 604 million adults and 108 million children—roughly 10 percent of the world’s population.
No nation on earth, even with the terrible toll that obesity takes in economic and health terms, has found a way to get its people skinnier and healthier: Weight woes are blowing up in disparate places like Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea-Bissau, international researchers have reported in the New England Journal of Medicine. Obesity is now a major concern, too, for the people of China, Turkey, Venezuela, and Bhutan.
Public health experts worry about the skyrocketing numbers of overweight people around the planet because evidence shows obesity to be a major factor in heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other debilitating conditions. These afflictions, combined with weight issues—including among those considered to be too heavy but not necessarily obese—contributed to four million deaths in 2015 alone, said the experts, participating as part of the Global Burden of Disease initiative.
That’s a consortium of more than 2,300 researchers in more than 130 countries. With the support of donors like the Gates Foundation, the initiative and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington seek to provide policy-makers with critically needed data on which they can make evidence-based decisions.
Researchers examined 1,800 different data sets to determine the scope of global obesity, basing their findings on global subjects’ body mass index and other measures. Although BMI offers only a rough guide to weight concerns, researchers deemed individuals obese if their number exceeded 30 (the equivalent of a 5-foot-9 person weighing 200 pounds) or overweight if their figure fell between 25 and 29 (a 5-foot-9 person weighing between 170 and 199 pounds).
Although excess pounds pose problems for all countries studied, Americans, unfortunately, topped the lists for the largest percentile point increase in obesity since 1980, with a combined 26.5 percent of the population (both adults and children) too heavy. That was a 16-percentage point jump in the study time overall, and a 5-percentage point increase for American kids — 12.5 percent of whom the researchers deemed obese.
That’s rotten news, because it signals more of us in this country have a high likelihood of needing medical treatment in the days ahead. And, in my practice, I see the terrible harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services.
The global weight research—though it did find glints of hope in advanced nations’ efforts at weight management, more exercise, and appropriate use of drugs to manage obesity related disease conditions—didn’t dwell on causes of patients’ excess poundage. But the experts noted that obesity is rising as a woe as more people around the planet reduce their activity, while also consuming more processed foods, especially those with high calories and low nutritional value—in other words, sadly, those in far flung places are eating too many high sugar, high fat, high salt, and fast convenience foods, just as Americans do in their relative affluence.
In this country, other research has shown that moderation in diet and exercise, not painful and extreme steps, could make a big difference in our health. That could mean we let our pets, especially our dogs, help get us moving more, or maybe we fool ourselves a bit by providing fanciful, fulsome descriptions of healthful veggies.
Although we’ve all gotten a bit better, though often confused, by the government and experts offering us more and improved diet and exercise information, we’ve clearly got a far ways to go. It doesn’t help that we’re barraged with too much diet and nutrition hype and misinformation. It’s also why it is disturbing that Trump Administration officials keep rolling back helpful information programs, notably those seeking to benefit kids. If it’s true that these actions are meant to spite their predecessors, particularly a popular First Lady, this ought to stop. It isn’t too tough on companies and restaurants to require them to offer nutrition information on package labels or to post menu calorie counts. It also is important, as research has shown, for schools to make kids’ lunch meals more healthful, with lower salt and higher whole grains.