Obesity Rates Rising Worldwide, Half of U.S. Could Be Obese by 2030

BY Talea Miller  August 25, 2011 at 6:42 PM EDT


There are an estimated 502 million obese adults worldwide. Photo by Flickr user Malingering.

The world is getting fatter, and packing on the pounds is not just for wealthy nations anymore.

Obesity is sweeping into low and middle-income countries, reports the World Health Organization’s obesity center, creating a dual problem of unhealthy weight gain in some segments of a country’s population, and malnutrition in others.

The warning comes as part of a special Lancet series on weight gain in the run-up to the United Nations high-level meeting on non-communicable diseases in September. World leaders will meet to plan a response to rising rates of heart disease, cancers, diabetes and other conditions closely tied to obesity.

“We are in an obesity and chronic disease crisis, although it doesn’t feel like it,” said Boyd Swinburn, from the WHO Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention and lead author of the paper. “Governments have been very slow to act [against obesity] around the world…abdicating the responsibility largely to individuals.”

There are an estimated 1.46 billion overweight adults worldwide, and 502 million of them are considered obese. While nearly all countries are seeing rates rise, the severity of the problem varies greatly from country to country, said the WHO.

In Japan, about one in every 20 adult women is obese, compared to one in four in Jordan, one in three in the United States and Mexico, and up to seven in 10 in Tonga.

In the United States, where health officials have termed obesity an epidemic, more than 50 percent of the adult population could be obese by 2030 if current trends continue, a team from Columbia University and Harvard University wrote in a separate paper in the series.

Currently 99 million obese people call the United States home, about a fifth of the global burden, and the country could add another 65 million by 2030. Prevalence could rise to 50 percent in men and between 45 and 52 percent in women, up from 32 and 35 percent currently.

Modeling also predicted the rise in obesity rates could equate to 7.8 million extra cases of diabetes and 6.8 million additional cases of coronary heart disease by 2030.

While obesity is most prevalent in the low-income populations of wealthy countries like the United States, the WHO Collaborating Center for Obesity authors observed the reverse trend in poorer countries. A rise in obesity usually occurred first in the wealthy female populations there.

The across-the-board rise in obesity appears to be driven by changes in the global food system and the increased availability of processed, affordable foods, along with more sedentary lifestyles, the authors concluded.