Study Says Increasing Obesity Rates Now a Global Health Problem

Global obesity rates have doubled worldwide since 1980, according to a study that has sparked calls for new public health strategies to deal with the obesity “pandemic.”

The study is one of three newly published in the British journal The Lancet that examine the key risk factors for cardiovascular disease — obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. The assessment of obesity, defined as a body mass index over 35 kilograms per square meter of body surface, is the bleakest. (Body mass index, or BMI, is a proxy for human body fat based on an individual’s height and weight.)

Between 1980 and 2008, the average BMI for men in 199 countries and regions surveyed by the researchers rose in all but eight countries and, for women, in all but 19. Obesity increased from 4.8 percent of the world’s men to 9.8 percent, and, for women, it rose from 7.9 percent to 13.8 percent. North American men have an average BMI of 28.4 (about 197 pounds for a 5-foot-10-inch man).

“This is one of the great pandemics of the 21st century. Its consequences are huge,” Richard Feachem, a professor of global health at the University of California at San Francisco who was not involved in the project, told The Washington Post.

Experts said changing dietary habits and lack of exercise are fueling the surge in surplus poundage, particularly in developing countries. “They are simply catching up with us in terms of all the modern ‘conveniences,’ such as fast food, vending machines and so on,” Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, said in an interview with ABC News.

The other studies found a big decline in the numbers of people in wealthy Western nations with uncontrolled high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Worldwide, though, there was only a slight drop in blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

“Our results show that overweight and obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are no longer Western problems or problems of wealthy nations,” said Majid Ezzati, an epidemiologist at London’s Imperial College who headed the research. “Their presence has shifted towards low- and middle-income countries, making them global problems.”

As far as anti-obesity measures, some experts recommend abolishing subsidies for production of certain foods, taxing certain foods and making it more difficult to purchase unhealthy foods with government aid. “We need to restore some of what used to be the norm in terms of foods direct from nature and daily exertion,” Katz said.

The research was funded by the World Health Organization and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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