Obesity has been designated as a worldwide health problem for only a few decades, and since 1980 its prevalence across the globe has doubled. The World Health Organization defines obesity according to body mass index, which is your weight in kilograms divided by your height in meters squared. Approximately 13 percent of adults around the globe have a BMI of 30 or greater, which categorizes them as obese.
Obesity puts a person at a higher risk of serious health conditions, including high blood pressure and cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease and respiratory problems, as well as some cancers. Understanding how obesity came to be such a world-wide affliction helps policy makers find ways to improve public health.
Scarcity Has a Longer History Than Obesity
Mankind has dealt with food scarcity and potential starvation for most of the time we've been on earth. For much of civilization, being overweight or obese was lauded as a symbol of wealth and prosperity -- something to celebrate. Only as countries developed in the 18th century and food became more readily available did the weight of populations as a whole start to rise.
At first, the greater availability of food created a stronger, healthier population. But, in the last century, it's developed into a full-blown health problem. For example, in the United States during the 1930s, life insurance companies started screening potential clients for body weight, and in the 1950s, doctors openly linked increasing rates of obesity with subsequent increases in the diagnosis of heart diseases. It wasn't until the year 2000, though, that the number of people who were overweight or obese was greater than the number of those who were underweight.
The Historic Rise of Obesity in the United States
The obesity trend in the United States may actually have originated in the early 20th century, during which it was discovered that poor children's health improved tremendously when their malnutrition was corrected by providing them access to more calories, namely from inexpensive sugars and fats. Low-cost foods provided to the working class improved overall industrial, and, subsequently, economic productivity.
Improved industrial technology created ways in which producing cheap, high-calorie foods became even easier. This was coupled with the development of technology that made life more sedentary -- such as cars, dishwashers and washing machines -- and created a situation where it was easy to consume an excess of calories. In the United States, the prevalence of obesity barely changed during the 1960s and 70s, but escalated sharply starting in the 1980s. In 1980, the obesity rate was 13.4 percent, but skyrocketed to 34.9 percent as per the 2011 to 2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which was reported in a 2012 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Obesity's Worldwide Reach
Obesity most often occurs when a person consistently eats more calories than he burns, and his body stores the excess energy as fat. Some of the same environmental factors that caused obesity to rise in industrialized countries have now affected developing nations. Early in the 20th century, obesity was mostly a problem in first world countries of Europe and the United States. In 1997, though, the World Health organization recognized obesity as a global epidemic as rates rose in countries such as Mexico, Brazil, China and Thailand. Obesity affects both the upper and lower socioeconomic classes in these populations.
The reduction of people living in rural environments is one reason that obesity rates rose sharply. People living in urban settings tend to burn a lot fewer calories as they walk less, do fewer household chores and have sedentary jobs. People don't have to farm or gather food and water is no longer fetched, but provided by public utilities. Energy-dense, processed foods become readily available for a relatively low cost. These foods are also low in nutrients, so it's not unlikely to find malnourished children in the same household as obese adults in many countries.
Reversing the Obesity Trend
The obesity epidemic cost the U.S. alone $147 billion dollars in medical costs in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To help reduce the instances of obesity, the World Health Organization encourages governments to help people become aware of obesity and its very serious health implications through public campaigns and school.
Encouraging individuals to make healthier choices and to move more is one way to reduce obesity, but this simple strategy isn't always practical or sufficient. Urban planning that provides more public space for safe physical activity and adjustments to food production and marketing are required. The World Health Organization maintains that governments have a responsibility to make physical activity and healthy foods more accessible. The food industry can also help by reducing the amount of fat and sugar in processed foods and curbing marketing that encourages over consumption.
Is This an Emergency?
- Advances in Chronic Kidney Disease: A History of Obesity, or How What Was Good Became Ugly and Then Bad
- The Surgeon General's Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation: Background on Obesity
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Adult Obesity Facts
- Journal of the American Medical Association: Prevalence of Childhood and Adult Obesity in the United States, 2011-2012
- Oxford Journals: The Global Epidemic of Obesity: An Overview
- World Health Organization: Obesity and Overweight
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: One in Five Adults Meet Overall Physical Activity Guidelines