Globally, Obesity is Now Deadlier Than Hunger

fat man belly on beachNeed incentive to eat healthier?  Diabetes, stroke and heart disease, have become the dominant cause of death and disability worldwide.

Obesity and its myriad complications produce health problems greater than those caused by hunger:  according to a new report published in the British medical journal The Lancet, it’s the leading cause of disability around the world. Middle Eastern countries are more obese than ever, experiencing a 100% increase since 1990.

Green Prophet has reported on the Gulf’s supersized children, and advised readers that four of the ten fattest nations weigh in from the Middle East.   According to the World Health Organization’s Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 (GBD 2010), more years of life are now lost from obesity than from hunger. But its not just this region that’s straining at the seams. In the past twenty years, global obesity rates have increased over 80% in an epidemic touching every country outside of sub-Saharan Africa.

GBD 2010 is the largest scientific effort to define the global distribution of major diseases and health risks. Lancet Editor-in-Chief Dr. Richard Horton describes the report as “critical to our understanding of present and future health priorities for countries and the global community.”

Infectious diseases, malnutrition, and maternal and childhood illness now cause fewer deaths than they did two decades ago. Alternatively, non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as diabetes, stroke and heart disease, have become the dominant cause of death and disability worldwide.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim assert that, since 1970, people worldwide have gained a decade of life expectancy with a generally diminished quality of life as they spend more years living with injury and illness.

“We’ve figured out how to keep the person who suffered a stroke alive, but then they’re living disabled for years afterward. That’s not the quality of life that person expected,” Ali Mokdad, co-author of the study and professor of global health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which led the collaborative project, told CNN.

The data points to impressive progress against malnutrition and infectious diseases, especially in children.

“We discovered a huge shift in mortality. Kids who used to die from infectious disease are now doing extremely well with immunization. However, the world is now obese and we’re seeing the impact of that,” said Mokdad.

Nearly 500 researchers from 50 countries compared health data from 1990 through 2010 for the report, baring an alarming shift in global health trends. “The so-called ‘Western lifestyle’ is being adapted all around the world, and the impacts are all the same.  All these problems are tied to obesity,” Mokdad said. “We’re seeing a large percentage of people suffering back pain now. If we could lower obesity rates, we’d see the numbers of noncommunicable diseases and pain decrease as well.”

NCDs are a global challenge of “epidemic proportions,” according to Dr. Chan. In Western countries, deaths from heart disease are down 70%, however, the number of people diagnosed with heart disease is increasing. In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly last year, she said NCDs are a “slow-motion disaster” that eventually could break the bank.

Shifting the focus to preventative treatment could also have economic benefits. A 2011 report by the World Economic Forum and Harvard School of Public Health estimates NCDs will cost more than $30 trillion over the next 20 years, with an additional $16 trillion spent on mental health conditions: costs that could push millions of people into poverty.

“We hope policymakers will pay attention to these numbers and figure out what programs they can implement to intervene on these trends,” Mokdad said.

Astounding now that not eating may be the healthier choice.

Image of obese belly by Shutterstock

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4 thoughts on “Globally, Obesity is Now Deadlier Than Hunger”

  1. Laurie Balbo says:

    I saw that on a BBC newscast this weekend. Hard to judge the science from a quick soundbite.

    A doctor cousin of mine – a large woman – argued forever that overweight people are unlikely to suffer bone loss (as everyday activities become “weight training”) – subsequently disproven at her last check-up.

    It’s improbable that obesity is the healthiest weight zone, but I’m sure there are exceptions.

  2. Tinamarie says:

    Curious about your thoughts on the latest data that shows being overweight doesn’t increase your chances of death by stroke or heart attack. In fact, slightly overweight (BMI 25-30) was associated with better health outcomes than those who had a BMI under 25…interesting, eh?

  3. Laurie Balbo says:

    I think it’s a bit more complicated than that, JTR. In modern cultures (1st world urban centers), fast food is the cheapest option to feed a cash-strapped family (no need to buy raw ingredients, cooking utensils, fuel, and clean up gear). Takes a resourceful working parent to cook home meals that competes with dollar meals. (Pun intended, as it takes time and cash resources to compete).

    And in developing places, there’s a lot of copycat-ing happening. Brand association and cache connected with western living.

    Amazing that the more healthful option may turn out to be the local soup kitchen.

  4. JTR says:

    Billions of people are so nervous struggling to make money fast enough to get rich they eat obsessively.

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