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Female bare feet on weight scale

Obesity rates are rising around the world

Shutterstock/Rostislav_Sedlacek

More than a billion people worldwide – or roughly 1 in 8 – has obesity, making it the most common form of malnutrition in nearly every country.

Francesco Branca at the World Health Organization (WHO) and his colleagues compiled data from more than 3600 studies published over the past 35 years to understand how obesity rates have changed between 1990 and 2022. The studies included almost 230 million people across 197 countries. The researchers then calculated participants’ body mass index (BMI) – a score based on height and weight – to estimate how rates of obesity have changed with time.

During the study period, the global prevalence of obesity more than doubled among adults 20 years and older and quadrupled in children and adolescents between 5 and 19 years old. By 2022, obesity rates among women and girls had increased in roughly 93 per cent of countries. The same was true among boys in all but five countries. Only one country – France – did not see an uptick in obesity rates for men.

Adult obesity rates rose the most in countries in the Caribbean, Middle East and North Africa. Meanwhile, the largest increases in child and adolescent obesity occurred in Brunei, Chile and island nations in Polynesia, Micronesia and the Caribbean.

Obesity raises the risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and various other health problems. “It is very concerning that the epidemic of obesity that was evident among adults in much of the world in 1990 is now mirrored in school-aged children and adolescents,” said Majid Ezzati at Imperial College London, one of the study’s senior authors, in a press release.

The researchers believe processed foods high in calories and sugar are partially to blame for the surge in obesity rates as they have become more widely available throughout the world in recent decades. However, focusing on individual behaviours such as diet and exercise have had and will continue to have little impact on obesity prevalence, they note. To really prevent and manage obesity, governments worldwide must implement policies to make healthy foods and physical activity more accessible and affordable, said Branca in the press release.

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