More that 1 billion of world's population is clinically obese, study shows

Europe AP - Kirsty Wigglesworth
MAR 1, 2024 LISTEN
AP - Kirsty Wigglesworth

More than one billion people around the world are now suffering from obesity – with the number having more than quadrupled since 1990, according to a WHO study published by The Lancet medical journal.

The study – released Friday ahead of World Obesity Day on 4 March – estimates that there were about 226 million obese adults, adolescents and children in the world in 1990, and that figure rose to 1,038 million in 2022.

The "epidemic" is particularly hitting poorer countries and the rate is growing among children and adolescents faster than adults, according to the study carried out with the World Health Organization.

Francesco Branca, director of nutrition for health at the WHO, said the rise past one billion people has come "much earlier than we have anticipated".

While doctors knew obesity numbers were rising fast, the symbolic figure had previously been expected in 2030.

According to The Lancet, researchers analysed the weight and height measurements of more than 220 million people in more than 190 countries to reach the estimates.

They estimated that 504 million adult women and 374 million men were obese in 2022, while the study said the obesity rate has nearly tripled for men (14 percent) since 1990 and more than doubled for women (18.5 percent).

Some 159 million children and adolescents were living with obesity in 2022, according to the study, up from about 31 million in 1990.

The chronic and complex illness is accompanied by a greater risk of death from heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.

Being overweight increased the risk of death during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Countries in Polynesia and Micronesia, the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa have suffered more from the rise.

"These countries now have higher obesity rates than many high-income industrialised countries, especially those in Europe," the study said.

"In the past we have tended to think of obesity as a problem of the rich, now a problem of the world," said Branca, who highlighted the fast lifestyle changes in low and middle-income countries.

Eating badly feeds obesity

The study's lead author, Majid Ezzati of Imperial College London, said there were signs that obesity was levelling out in some southern European countries such as France and Spain – "especially for women".

But he said that in most countries there are more people suffering from obesity than being under-weight, which the study said has fallen since 1990.

While not eating enough is the main cause of being under-weight, eating badly is a prime factor for obesity.

Speaking on Irish national broadcaster RTE on Friday, Dr. Francis Finnucane, an endocrinologist at Galway University Hospital underlined that what has caused the obesity crisis "has undoubtedly been a change in how our diets have evolved over time."

"We are overproducing and overmarketing very large quantities of very unhealthy foods ... During and after World War II, governments around the world prioritised food security, and the availability of relatively cheap, long shelf life, energy dense food.

"We achieved that aim, and food security has gone up a great deal – and that's a plus. But we've overshot the runway ... and that has led to an overconsumption of these products." 

The WHO has supported taxes on sugary drinks, limiting the marketing of unhealthy foods to children and increasing subsidies for healthy foods. 

Experts say that new treatments against diabetes can also help combat obesity.