Global Food Crisis

The Global Obesity Epidemic: a Looming Food Crisis

October 29, 2019

The ‘global food crisis’ is a broad umbrella topic that encompasses three major categories: undernutrition, overnutrition (obesity), and micronutrient malnutrition. Global undernutrition has been a major topic of discussion for decades and while obesity and nutrient deficiencies are certainly talked about, they definitely take a backseat when it comes to importance – as determined by public opinion.

I find this very interesting and wonder whether the tides will soon change now that global obesity is rapidly escalating, undernourishment trends role are showing a marked decline, and micronutrient malnutrition effects every country in the world to some degree.

This article is intended to give an overview of one element of the global nutrition crisis – obesity. It is an information heavy article, because there is a lot to cover, but please bear with me – it is a topic extremely close to my heart and I will refer back to this overview in future articles.

What is Global Obesity?

Obesity is a condition associated with an individual having surplus amounts of body fat, which may affect their health. And more often than not, health will be grievously affected if obesity is left untreated. Obesity affects so many people all over the world, for a variety of different reasons. I believe one of the major symptoms of the Global Food Crisis is obesity because of its threat to public health everywhere.

I have a personal connection to obesity because I was once an obese person. Like many people, I became the result of my circumstances, and I was eventually faced with life’s most convincing ultimatum: get healthy… or else. I feel so fortunate to have found a solution that worked for me, that I have been passionately sharing my story ever since, in hopes that someone who needs to hear it is listening. Obesity is complex, but it isn’t a mystery. From research to posited solutions, part of my purpose is to shed light on the global obesity crisis.

The World Health Organization (WHO) measure and predict global obesity rates by comparing Body Mass Indexes (BMIs), an ideal measurement because it is the same for all ages (adults 18+) and for both sexes.1 Overweight or at-risk individuals are classified by having a BMI of 25-30, while obese individuals/populations are characterized by having a BMI equal to or greater than 30.1

A 2016 study by WHO has shed light on some shocking, and honestly quite alarming, statistics beginning with global obesity almost tripling since 1975.1 As of 2016, 1.9 billion adults (39% of the population) have been deemed overweight – of that 1.9 billion, 650 million (13% of the population) are obese.1 These numbers are sure to be higher now. In fact, predictions show that by 2022 the world will have more obese children and young adolescents in it than underweight ones – marking the first time in history this has flipped.1 I know, terrifying numbers, right? It is global crisis.

But why is obesity so prevalent in the world? Why are the numbers rising? Is it not all preventable? I have asked myself and others these questions so many times and have been met with a huge array of answers. What I have come to discover is that the answer is very complex, and there is no single target on which we can lay the obesity blame.

There is a lot of stigma in today’s society on obese and overweight individuals where their weight and obesity is seen not as a chronic disease but rather as a personal or moral choice. As obesity has become prevalent a global crisis, more and more studies have shown that actually there is a complex interaction of the behavioral, environmental, genetic, hormonal and developmental elements that all contribute to obesity.2

What Causes Obesity?

The very elementary cause of obesity is an energy asymmetry between calories absorbed and calories expended. But the problem is far more complicated than that. If the solution to obesity were entirely behavioral and was as simple as “more out than in” we wouldn’t be facing the vast scope of this disease. Using this argument typically leads to the blaming and stigmatization of individuals… “just eat less, walk more.” There is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It is just not that simple.

There are so many reasons and variables that impact obesity from the perspective of the Global Food Crisis. For example, people eat more saturated fat and processed sugar now than ever. People are also eating foods without nutritional value because they are less expensive and typically have a longer shelf life. These types of food dependencies are also created by food deserts and are a reality in every country. There also has been a rise in physical inactivity due to the progressively sedentary nature of many workplaces, and the abundant availability of transportation, expanding urbanization, and access to technology.2 These changes that greatly affect how people live their lives, nourish themselves, and ultimately impact the growing obesity trend globally.

Multiple studies have found genetic links to certain disorders which can result in obesity. Having said that, not all individuals with a predisposition to obesity will become obese. Researchers are working to determine which genes (and how many genes) affect obesity and in what way. The hope is that when we know more about our genetic makeup and how genes interact with the body, we will be able interfere and prevent or reverse the effects.3 Could we prevent obesity by knowing our genes?

Environment also plays a key role in the rise of obesity. Exercise has become a choice for more and more people instead of being just a part of life. Walking and farming has been replaced by driving to work and sitting at a desk for hours on end, why run around outside when you have two seasons of the next best show available on Netflix, and why spend time and money making nutritionally complete meals when you can just swing by any fast food joint and have a meal quickly, cheaply and oh-so-Americanly delicious.3

While obesity spans over all income brackets, there is also a higher prevalence of obesity in difficult social conditions, such as poverty. Low- and middle-income countries are affected more dramatically with poor nutrition (which can be the cause of both chronic undernourishment and obesity) than high income countries – and this also applies to subcultures within countries.4 High income countries can have low income subcultures that struggle to have access to high quality nutrition and therefore suffer with malnourishment whether it be undernourishment, over nourishment or both.4

All of these factors and more play a vital role in the obesity epidemic. And so far, not a single country has been able to reverse this dangerous trend.5

Health Consequences Associated With Obesity

Obesity is cause for major concern when it comes to global physical and mental health. A BMI of 30 or more is a major risk factor for over 40 medical conditions such as:

  • cardiovascular diseases
  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • stroke
  • depression
  • sleep apnea and other respiratory issues
  • musculoskeletal disorders (especially osteoarthritis)
  • some cancers (including endometrial, breast, ovarian, prostate, liver, gallbladder, kidney, and colon)3

The risk for all of these conditions increases with increase in BMI.3 In many cases these conditions can be prevented by losing weight and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. For some however, this weight loss is extremely difficult, and can even require surgery and an entire lifelong lifestyle change.

A 2010 study found an estimated 3.4 million deaths globally were caused by being overweight or being obese (mostly due to cardiovascular problems).6 If obesity is left unchecked, at the rate it is increasing it is predicted that the overall life expectancy of countries worldwide will rapidly decrease.6

Double Burden Malnutrition

To top it all off, most countries also face what is called a “double burden of malnutrition”, DBM, which happens when undernutrition and obesity co-exist within the same country, region, community, household, and individual.4

At a high level, most countries, communities, and regions have some degree of undernourishment as well as having climbing obesity rates.

In the household, a parent may be anemic and underweight while their child has a significantly higher than optimal BMI.

And DBM even happens at an individual level. An example of this is an obese person with serious deficiencies of one or more vitamins or minerals because they are consuming low quality or low nutritional valued foods. Another example is an obese adult who struggled with and was stunted by undernourishment as a child, and even cases where they were stunted in the womb.2

Who is at Risk?

Every single country in the world is affected by one or more forms of malnutrition whether it be the lack of or excess of poor quality foods. The scale of this global food crisis is so vast is has become one of the world’s greatest global health challenges.1 Most of today’s population live in countries where obesity-related health conditions kill more people than undernourishment does.1

Around 13% of the world’s population is considered obese,5 and some of the world’s most obese countries are over 40% obese. It might surprise you to learn which countries have the highest rates of obesity (based on people over the age of 15). These are the 18 countries whose obesity rate is higher than the global average of 13%:

Rank      Country Percent Population Obese
1 Samoa 42%
2 Tonga 41%
3 Kiribati 40%
4 United States 38%
5 Saudi Arabia 34%
6 Mexico 32%
7 New Zealand 31%
8 Hungary 30%
9 Australia 28%
10 United Kingdom 27%
11 South Africa 27%
12 Canada 26%
13 Chile 25%
14 Finland 25%
15 Costa Rica 25%
16 Germany 24%
17 Russia 19%
18 Lithuania 17%

Source: OECD and WHO5

Women, infants, children and adolescents also have a particularly high risk of poor nutrition. In the 2016 population study on global nutrition, 41 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese.1 Developing optimal nutrition very early in life is the best contributing factor to an optimal start in life and provides long-term benefits.1

Low- and middle-income countries, regions, communities, households and individuals are also especially at risk of malnutrition. Obesity and undernourishment increase overall health care costs, reduce productivity and slow economic growth, which only bolsters a cycle of poverty and poor health.1

The Obesity Epidemic in the United States

To bring this global crisis a little closer to home, the United States, who ranks 4th in percent of population that is obese but comes in 1st place as the country with the largest number of obese people aged 15 years and over (approximately 100 million).5 These obesity rates vary a lot depending on factors such as gender, social group, income, and region.

Women typically across the board have higher obesity rates than men, while black Americans have the highest rate for obesity as a social group.5

Source: US Center for Disease Control5

So why does the US have the most obese people in the world? Well it’s not just how much we eat… it is what we eat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture noted that the average American consumed nearly 20% more calories in the year 2000 they did in 1983.7 And contributing factors to this huge increase in calories is added fats and carbohydrates. In fact, during this same time period, consumption of added fats rose by around two thirds and carbohydrate consumption has risen 45% since 1970!7

The World Health Organization found a positive correlation between fast food sales and the rise in national BMIs, reporting that fast food makes up around 11% of the today’s average American diet.7

Generationally, we Americans are spending more and more time at work sitting at a desk instead of spending time moving around or in our own kitchen cooking nutritional meals – but hey, sometimes the drive-through is a necessity!

How Can We Slow the Rate Of Obesity?

Alright, morbidity aside, is there anything we can do to put a stop this obesity crisis?

The bright side is that overweight and obesity are largely preventable. For many overweight and obese people, making healthier food choices and having regular physical activity is the easiest, most accessible, available and affordable.1 This all starts by educating themselves on what constitutes healthy options and unhealthy options and then making a choice with all of the information at their fingertips.

The World Health Organization suggest obese and overweight individuals can:

  • limit calorie consumption from total fats and sugars;
  • increase consumption of fruit and vegetables, as well as legumes, whole grains and nuts; and
  • engage in regular physical activity (60 minutes a day for children and 150 minutes spread through the week for adults).8

But individual responsibility can only be successful when people have access to healthy options. Therefore, as a society it is vital that we protect individuals with the utilization of science-backed and population-based policies that make healthier dietary and physical exercise choices available, affordable, and easily accessible to everyone, especially to the poorest individuals.8

Food corporations can also have a significant role in promoting healthy diets by:

  • reducing the fat, sugar and salt content of processed foods;
  • ensuring that healthy and nutritious choices are available and affordable to all consumers;
  • restricting marketing of foods high in sugars, salt and fats, especially those foods aimed at children and teenagers; and
  • ensuring the availability of healthy food choices and supporting regular physical activity practice in the workplace.8

As the obesity crisis has grown to a global epidemic, international communities led by WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) have created the “UN Decade of Action on Nutrition,” which calls for policy action across 6 key areas:

  • creating sustainable, resilient food systems for healthy diets;
  • providing social protection and nutrition-related education for all;
  • aligning health systems to nutrition needs, and providing universal coverage of essential nutrition interventions;
  • ensuring that trade and investment policies improve nutrition;
  • building safe and supportive environments for nutrition at all ages; and
  • strengthening and promoting nutrition governance and accountability, everywhere.1

Throughout this blog I have mentioned statistics and facts about this global obesity crisis that quite frankly terrify me, and they should be alarming. But what gives me hope and dare I say a little bit of global pride - is that we have an opportunity here to band together not just as a household, neighborhood, city, state, or nation, but as a global force to change the tide on the Global Food Crisis of obesity.



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