One of the world’s worst yet most overlooked problems affecting us economically is obesity. And it seems now it’s only going to get worse.
Research by the World Obesity Federation (WOF) predicts that 51% of the population will be obese by 2035, without significant action. The data will be presented to United Nations policymakers and member states next week.
Right now, around 2.6 billion people globally – 38% of the world population – are already overweight or obese. The report found that rates of obesity are rising particularly quickly among children and in lower-income countries. Childhood obesity could more than double in levels in the next 12 years compared to 2020. Nine of the 10 countries set to experience the biggest rises in coming years are nations in Africa and Asia. The report further explained that this is because of dietary preferences towards more highly processed foods, greater levels of sedentary behaviour, weaker policies to control food supply and marketing, and less well-resourced healthcare services to assist in weight management and health education.
The report found that the cost of obesity will skyrocket from $1.96 trillion in 2019 to $4.32 trillion by 2035. This would be the equivalent of three per cent of the global Gross Domestic Product — a sum comparable to the economic damage wrought by COVID-19, a huge blow to the economy.
India seems to be at the forefront of this crisis. India has some 135 million overweight citizens in a population of 1.4 billion. Studies have confirmed that the prevalence of obesity in India will substantially increase by 2040 and may be faster than the world average. The crisis will affect older ages and those in rural areas much more compared to others. And the causes of obesity between men and women also vary greatly. A study by Economics and Human Biology found that the use of technology that reduces physical activity largely contributed to obesity in men. And for women, “increasing age and diminishing reproductive stress (when a woman stops having children)” was a major factor. Among the youth, junk food consumption has skyrocketed.
On one end, some Indians also have an outdated attitude towards this problem. Doing household work and labour is considered to be for the ‘poor’. The ideal job for Indians is sitting at a desk all day and doing very little. On the other end, the same Indians have a rampant fat-shaming habit, even though many cases of obesity here are genetic.
fatshaming is so normal in india people don't even start convos with "hello", just "oh you've put on weight" https://t.co/xdmKJwGCOt
— Vidhi Doshi (@vidhidoshi91) July 31, 2019
Louise Baur, president of the WOF, said that policymakers needed to act now to prevent the situation from worsening. The authors are calling for a focus on the societal, environmental and biological factors involved in the conditions. Calorie reduction, marketing restrictions and sugar taxation are a few examples of how governments can intervene. Past research has shown that government intervention can have a real impact. In Japan, only 3.6 per cent of people have a BMI over 30, thanks in part to the government’s policies and strict approach towards solving obesity. Back in 2008, the country went as far as to fine companies with overweight staff, and more policies like this have made Japan one of the very few countries to successfully evade the obesity crisis.
The WOF report uses body mass index (BMI) for its assessments, a number calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by their height in metres squared. In line with the World Health Organization’s guidelines, a BMI score over 25 is overweight and over 30 is obese. Evidence shows that obesity increases the risk of cancer, heart disease and other chronic illnesses.
We can argue that the concept of BMI is inherently flawed. It does not take into account muscle mass, bone density, overall body composition and racial and sex differences. Researchers have pointed out that it’s not an accurate measure of body fat content. BMI in the traditional sense is used as a measure of health risk. It cannot, however, provide an indication of someone’s health habits. BMI does not tell you what someone eats, how they move their body, the quality of their sleep, or their stress levels — all things that influence health.
As the report also states, the crisis is not to be entirely blamed on individuals living with obesity. It is very easy to point fingers at individuals, shaming them into making a change. But we have to understand that obesity is a much more complex and multi-factorial disease. We can only tackle it with concerted cross-government action. We need comprehensive policies and treatments, not internet shaming.