Around the world, 2.1 billion people are overweight or obese, a
Around the world, 2.1 billion people are
overweight or obese, a study says
By Los Angeles Times, adapted by Newsela staff
Shawniece Simpson (left) does calisthenics with others during a group treatment session for obesity inside the Hudson auditorium at the MLK
Multi-Service Ambulatory Care Center in Los Angeles, California, on July 29, 2013. Photo: Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times/MCT
The world isn’t getting smaller, it’s getting bigger — literally — according to a new report.
Around the world, people were much more likely to be overweight or obese in 2013 than they were in 1980, the
study found. And that goes for everyone — men and women, children and adults, citizens of rich countries and
poor ones. The report was published Thursday in the medical journal The Lancet.
In 1980 — the year Pac-Man was unleashed on the world and John Lennon was assassinated — there were 857
million people on the planet who were either overweight or obese. In 2013 — 33 years later — there were 2.1
It’s not just that the global population grew and thus the number of people who are carrying around extra weight
is higher. The proportion of men who were overweight or obese rose from 28.8 percent in 1980 to 36.9 percent
in 2013. The proportion of overweight or obese women increased from 29.8 percent to 38 percent during the
same period, the report said. Overweight people have body mass indexes (BMI) of 25 to 29.9, and the BMI of
obese people is over 30. BMI measures body fat based on a person's height and weight.
More Boys And Girls Obese Too
In developed countries like the United States and England, 16.9 percent of boys and 16.2 percent of girls were
overweight or obese in 1980. By 2013, those figures were 23.8 percent and 22.6 percent, respectively. Even in
developing countries such as India or China, the number of overweight and obese boys rose from 8.1 percent to
12.9 percent. The number of overweight and obese girls grew from 8.4 percent to 13.4 percent, the researchers
All over the world, the more time passed, the bigger the waistlines grew. “Successive (groups) seemed to be
gaining weight at all ages, including childhood and adolescence,” the researchers found. The most rapid period
of weight gain came between the ages of 20 and 40.
A few extra pounds may seem harmless, but the combined effect is serious, public health experts say. The U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that being overweight or obese will increase a person’s risk
of such life-threatening conditions as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke and certain types of cancer. A 2010
study in The Lancet estimated that overweight and obesity caused 3.4 million deaths worldwide.
For the new study, dozens of researchers from around the world worked together to gather accurate figures on
weight for 183 countries. They focused on rates of overweight and obesity in the years between 1980 and 2013.
The massive effort was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which did not influence the study
design or its findings.
Dubious Distinction For USA
The tropical island kingdom of Tonga was highlighted for having the majority of its adult population considered
obese. In addition, six other countries had obesity rates above 50 percent for women. They were Kuwait,
Kiribati, the Federated States of Micronesia, Libya, Qatar and Samoa.
The United States earned special mention for its high obesity rate. A total of 31.6 percent of American men and
33.9 percent of women are obese. The researchers noted that 13 percent of the world’s 671 million obese
individuals live in the U.S. — more than any other country.
Indeed, more than half of the world’s obese people lived in just 10 countries in 2013: the U.S., China, India,
Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Egypt, Germany, Pakistan and Indonesia. China and India actually had “low” rates of
obesity. For instance, 3.8 percent of Chinese men and 5 percent of Chinese women were obese in 2013, along
with only 3.7 percent of Indian men and 4.2 percent of Indian women. But both countries have such large
populations that they still came in at No. 2 and No. 3 on the worldwide list.
“No countries had significant decreases in obesity in the past 33 years,” the report's authors wrote. That was
perhaps the most depressing finding in the entire 16-page report.
A Weighty Challenge
In an explanation that accompanies the study, epidemiologist Klim McPherson wondered what it would take for
the world to get serious about reining in weight gain. An epidemiologist studies the patterns of health conditions
and their causes. McPherson wants to return BMI levels to where they were 30 years ago.
“Public health efforts are leading to progress in tobacco control and (heart healthy) diets in a slow and
deliberate way. As a result, deaths caused by smoking-related diseases and cardiovascular diseases are
decreasing,” wrote McPherson, a visiting professor at the University of Oxford. “Can a similar success with
weight ever happen?”
Probably not any time soon, he conceded. For policymakers, tackling obesity is like tackling climate change.
Experts have a good idea of what needs to be done, but there is simply no political will to make such radical
“Where is the international will to act decisively in a way that might restrict economic growth in a competitive
world, for the public’s health?” McPherson wrote. That means that people would eat — and buy — less food.
“Nowhere yet, but … politicians can no longer hide behind ignorance or confusion.”