LONDON – Almost a third of the world is now overweight, and no country has been able to curb obesity rates in the last three decades, according to a new global analysis.
Researchers found more than 2 billion people worldwide are now overweight or obese, up from 857 million 33 years ago.
About two in three adults in the U.K. are overweight, official figures there show, making it the fattest country in Western Europe.
A person’s body mass index is calculated by dividing weight in kilograms by the square of height in meters. One is considered overweight with a weight-to-height ratio of 25 or over and obese from 30 upward. The indicator is also known as a body mass index.
A staggering 671 million people now fall within the obese category, said the study, 78 million of them in the United States, which accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population but about 13 percent of the planet’s grossly overweight people.
China and India, with much larger populations, trailed second and third in the top 10 obese countries, with 46 million and 30 million people, followed by Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Egypt, Germany, Pakistan and Indonesia.
By region, the highest rates were in the Middle East and North Africa, where nearly 60 percent of men and 65 percent of women are overweight.
Among the most striking statistics: More than half the population of Tonga is now classified as obese, a dangerous level, as are more than 50 percent of women in Kuwait, Libya, Qatar and Samoa.
Traditionally associated with an affluent lifestyle, the problem is expanding worldwide, with more than 62 percent of overweight people now in developing nations, said the report.
“It’s pretty grim,” said Christopher Murray of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, who led the study. He and colleagues reviewed more than 1,700 studies covering 188 countries from 1980 to 2013.
“When we realized that not a single country has had a significant decline in obesity, that tells you how hard a challenge this is,” he said. “In the last three decades, not one country has achieved success in reducing obesity rates, and we expect obesity to rise steadily as incomes rise in low- and middle-income countries in particular, unless urgent steps are taken to address this public health crisis.”
Overweight people are more prone to cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, osteoarthritis and kidney disease, and the soaring numbers are placing a heavy burden on health care systems, said the study.
Excess body weight is estimated to have caused 3.4 million deaths in 2010, and previous research has warned that an unabated rise in obesity could start eating away at life expectancy.
Murray said there was a strong link between income and obesity. As people get richer, their waistlines also tend to start bulging. He said scientists have noticed accompanying spikes in diabetes and that rates of cancers linked to weight, like pancreatic cancer, are also rising.
The study authors also expressed concern that nearly a quarter of children in developed countries and 13 percent in developing ones are overweight or obese, up from 16 percent and 8 percent in 1980.
Thirteen percent of American children are obese, almost 30 percent if you include overweight — up from 19 percent in 1980.
“Particularly high rates of child and adolescent obesity were seen in Middle Eastern and North African countries, notably among girls,” the study authors noted.
Other regional differences included a slower rate of increase in developed countries, but fast-expanding waistlines in the Middle East, North Africa, Central America and Pacific and Caribbean Islands — regions where many countries’ overweight rates exceed 44 percent. Fast gains also were measured in Britain and Australia.
Women are heavier in developing countries and men in developed ones.
The new report was paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and published online Thursday in the medical journal The Lancet.
Last week, the World Health Organization established a high-level commission tasked with ending childhood obesity.
“Our children are getting fatter,” Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO’s director-general, said bluntly during a speech at the agency’s annual meeting in Geneva. “Parts of the world are quite literally eating themselves to death.” Earlier this year, WHO said that no more than 5 percent of daily calories should come from sugar.
“Modernization has not been good for health,” said Syed Shah, an obesity expert at United Arab Emirates University, who found obesity rates have jumped by five times in the last 20 years even in a handful of remote Himalayan villages in Pakistan. His research was presented this week at a conference in Bulgaria. “Years ago, people had to walk for hours if they wanted to make a phone call,” he said. “Now everyone has a cellphone.”
Shah also said the villagers no longer have to rely on their own farms for food. “There are roads for (companies) to bring in their processed foods, and the people don’t have to slaughter their own animals for meat and oil,” he said. “No one knew about Coke and Pepsi 20 years ago. Now it’s everywhere.”
In Britain, the independent health watchdog issued new advice on Wednesday recommending heavy people be sent to free weight-loss classes to drop about 3 percent of their weight, reasoning that losing just a few pounds improves health and is more realistic.
“This is not something where you can just wake up one morning and say, ‘I am going to lose 10 pounds [4.5 kg],’ ” said Mike Kelly, the agency’s public health director, in a statement. “It takes resolve and it takes encouragement.”