The Obesity Problem Needs Our Full Attention

The World Health Organization defines obesity as condition in which a person has a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above. As First Lady Michelle Obama pushes forward with her anti-obesity campaign, we have to recognize the reality that 50% or more of developed countries have overweight populations, even though the growth in obesity rates has slowed over the past decade. For example, obesity rates have significantly decreased in England, Hungary, Italy, Korea, and Switzerland.

On the other hand, obesity rates have increased by 4-5% in Mexico and in the U.S., the country with the highest rate of obesity in the developed world.

Obesity is a serious public health concern, which needs to be strategically tackled, as it constitutes a key factor for several chronic diseases and hence threatens a country’s healthy human capital. According to the same OECD study mentioned above, an obese person incurs 25% higher health expenditures than a person of normal weight in a given year. Also, obesity contributes to 1-3% of total health expenditures in most OECD countries – 5-10% in the U.S.

The OECD study found that there’s a link between obesity rates and social and economic inequalities. For example, less educated women were 2 to 3 times more likely than their educated counterparts to be overweight, and obese workers earned up to 18% less than the non-obese.

According to Professor Boyd Swinburn, with the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention in Melbourne, Australia, obesity is driven, among other reasons, by changes in the food supply system like increasingly processed, available, affordable and highly promotes tasty food.

Obesity rates are also related to environment. For instance, Swinburn argues that “traditionally high levels of active transport, specifically bicycling, in the Netherlands contributed to a lower (obesity) rate.” In the U.S. 1 in 3 women are categorized as obese and this is associated with high levels of car use.

A comprehensive obesity prevention strategy would prevent, each year, 155,000 deaths from chronic diseases in Japan, 75,000 in Italy, 70,000 in England, 55,000 in Mexico and 40,000 in Canada.

According to Dr. Y Claire Wang of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, current trends suggest that there could be 65 million more obese adults in the U.S. and 11 million more obese adults in the U.K. by 2030. Consequently, 50% of American men and 52% of American women will be obese in 15 to 20 years from now.

Therefore, it’s important to take strong action against obesity. Dr. Richard Horton, the editor of medical journal, The Lancet, said that obesity is one of the “huge threats facing governments which are likely to derail their best attempts to improve the health of the nations while at the same time controlling costs.” The Lancet report also suggests a positive trend between obesity and expenditures directed at treating people who suffer from it.

Cost-effective public and private prevention initiatives along with awareness campaigns can be a way to address obesity from its underlying roots.

One option is to create partnerships with the food and beverage industries as suggested by the OECD. This strategy would help design and implement actions to deal with obesity by reformulating products to avoid unhealthy ingredients; moderating excessive portion sizes and offering healthy menu alternatives; limiting advertising to vulnerable groups like children; and informing consumers about food contents.