Obesity rates have been rising dramatically in the developing nations and slowing in richer countries, according to a new report from the Overseas Development Institute, a think tank in the United Kingdom. 1.46 billion adults — or one third of the global adult population — are now overweight or obese, according to the researchers.
Between 1980 and 2008, the number of obese or overweight people in the developing world nearly quadrupled. Steve Wiggins, who co-authored the report, believes that’s a function of income growth in poorer nations. “As countries go from being low-income to middle-income, and heading towards high-income, people earn more [money], and they can eat the foods that they find tasty,” Wiggins explained to NPR.
That doesn’t mean the obesity epidemic isn’t related to poverty; health disparities are still evident among different socioeconomic classes. Mexico provides one of the clearest examples of this dynamic. Mexico’s obesity rate surpassed the United States‘ this past summer, with the issue largely concentrated among the lower class. “The same people who are malnourished are the ones who are becoming obese,” physician Abelardo Avila with Mexico’s National Nutrition Institute told CBS News at the time. “In the poor classes we have obese parents and malnourished children. The worst thing is the children are becoming programmed for obesity. It’s a very serious epidemic.”
Here in the United States, the obesity rate has recently leveled off, although it’s still at epidemic levels. Obesity may be responsible for as many as 18 percent of deaths in this country, and public health officials have repeatedly warned that it’s pushing the health care system toward a potential crisis as Baby Boomers are living longer and sicker than previous generations.
Nonetheless, the report’s authors note that there isn’t much momentum for public policies to address the issue, even in the countries like the U.S. that have the economic resources to do so.
“There is little appetite amongst the public and their leaders in high-income countries to take strong measures to influence future diets. Most people hate to see regulation of their access to favoured foods, see taxation of unhealthy foods and ingredients as onerous and unfair, and acquiesce only in response to public information and education. Couple this with lobbying from food industries, and the political will to affect diets withers,” the authors point out.