OBness has often been seen as a problem of the developed world, with rich countries feeding themselves a state of ill health with an abundance of ultra-processed foods, and the poorest more often suffering from food insecurity. But that’s no longer true. According to a month of March World Obesity Atlas report (WOA), more than half of the world’s population – 51%, or more than 4 billion people – will suffer from obesity by 2035, and the condition will affect all regions and continents of the world. The total cost of treating obesity-related diseases will be estimated at $4 trillion per year, roughly how much the COVID-19 pandemic cost the world in healthcare expenditures in 2020.
The new projection marks a leap forward from the current figures for 2023. Currently, around 3.12 billion people (39% of the world’s population) suffer from obesity. But 15 years ago, in 2008, the global obesity rate was 23.9%, affecting 1.63 billion people.
The WOA, a non-governmental organization that files its reports with the World Health Organization and the UN, surveyed current obesity rates and trends in 180 different countries to arrive at its new projected figures. . Countries with the highest obesity rates tend to cluster in the South Pacific, with Kiribati and Tonga leading the world in predicted obesity rates in 2035 at 67%, followed by Samoa at 66%, French Polynesia 65% and Micronesia 64%. The United States is near the top, with a rate of 58%. The lowest projected obesity rates are in Asia, with Vietnam at 7%, followed by Japan at 8%, Singapore at 9%, and India and Bangladesh at 11%.
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Children aged 5 to 19 will be particularly affected by the growing epidemic, among whom obesity rates are expected to double, from 10% to 20% for boys and from 8% to 18% for girls. Even in Southeast Asia, with its relatively low projected obesity rates, weight gain in the youngest cohort is expected to be significant, with obesity rates among boys rising from 5% to 16% and among girls from 3% to 11%. In the South Pacific, a bad problem is only likely to get worse, as boys are predicted to drop from 19% obesity to 41% and girls from 9% to 28%. The Americas will also see their numbers increase, with the share of obese boys rising from 20% to 33% and that of girls from 16% to 26%.
The WOA posits many causes for the current trend beyond the growing global popularity of cheap, highly processed Western-style foods. Also to blame are so-called obesogens, or chemical pollutants like bisphenol A (BPA) which act as endocrine disruptors and are found in plastics, food packaging, furniture, paints, cosmetics, etc. Things only get worse when obesogens and poor diet coexist.
“The increase in ultra-processed foods in countries around the world, especially lower-middle-income countries,” the report states, “is likely to increase plastic-based products [in food packaging] and plastic waste. In turn, exposure to obesogenic pollutants can increase rapidly.
This is only part of the discouraging conclusions of the report. “Every nation is affected by obesity, with some low-income countries showing the largest increases over the past decade,” the authors write. “No country has reported a decline in the prevalence of obesity in its entire population. Although prevention and treatment of obesity requires financial investment, the cost of failure to prevent and of obesity treatment will be much higher.
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