Global progress toward tackling obesity has been “unacceptably slow”, health experts said on Wednesday, with only one in four countries implementing a policy on healthy eating before 2010.
In a series of studies published in The Lancet medical journal, researchers said that in less than a generation, rates of child obesity have risen dramatically worldwide, yet few countries have taken regulatory steps to protect children or implemented recommended healthy food policies.
“Our understanding of obesity must be completely reframed if we are to halt and reverse the global obesity epidemic,” said Dr. Christina Roberto of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who worked on one of the studies.
“On one hand, we need to acknowledge that individuals bear some responsibility for their health,” she said, “and on the other hand recognize that today’s food environments exploit people’s biological, psychological, social and economic vulnerabilities, making it easier for them to eat unhealthy foods.”
Obesity and related diseases on the rise worldwide
According to the World Health Organization, the global prevalence of obesity has more than doubled since 1980. In 2014, an estimated 39 percent of adults worldwide were overweight, and 13 percent were obese. Meanwhile, some 42 million children under the age of five were overweight or obese in 2013.
Once considered a high-income country problem, obesity is now on the rise in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings. In developing countries with emerging economies (classified by the World Bank as lower- and middle-income countries), the rate of increase of childhood overweight and obesity has been more than 30 percent higher than that of developed countries. As a result, overweight and obesity are now linked to more deaths worldwide than malnutrition/underweight.
The WHO has set a target to stop further increases in the global obesity rate within the next decade, but the report makes it clear that we have a long way to go. For instance, although rates of child obesity have started to level off in certain cities and countries, no country to date has seen declining rates of obesity on a population-wide level.
New data in The Lancet series reveal that children in the United States consume an average of 200kcal per day more than they did in the 1970s — equivalent to $400-worth of food per child per year, or $20 billion a year for the U.S. food industry. Perhaps not surprisingly, children in the U.S. weigh an average of 5 kg (about 11 lbs) more than they did 30 years ago, with 1 in 3 American children classified as overweight or obese.
Dr. Tim Lobstein of the World Obesity Federation, a co-researcher on the series, pointed out that the food industry has a special interest in targeting children, since repeated exposure to processed foods and sweetened drinks in infancy builds taste preferences, brand loyalty and high profits.
“Fat children are an investment in future sales,” he said, adding that this year the global market for processed infant foods is seen at $19 billion, up from $13.7 billion in 2007.
Government, industry, and civil action needed to combat obesity
The researchers called for tighter supervision and regulation of the food supply, including an international code of food marketing to protect children’s health; regulating food nutritional quality in schools; taxes on unhealthy products; subsidies for healthy foods for poorer families; and mandatory food labeling to prompt industry to produce healthier foods. According to one recent study, implementing a universal soda tax would be among the most effective ways to combat childhood obesity.
The authors also noted that health professionals are poorly prepared to treat obesity, saying that more needs to be done to address biases about patients with obesity, and to improve care-delivery strategies — particularly for children with obesity, for whom there are currently few treatment options. This is in line with another recent report in which experts called on healthcare providers to address the underlying biological causes of chronic obesity, rather than focusing only on diet and exercise.
Finally, the researchers said, civil action will be key to combating obesity. They point out that it was pressure from the public that saw smoking banned in public indoor places in the UK, and access to health care granted to all people living with HIV/AIDs in South Africa. Similar strategies are needed to pressure governments and food companies, the authors note.
According to Dr. Boyd Swinburn, the Series’ lead author and a researcher from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, the key to meeting WHO’s target to achieve no further increase in obesity rates by 2025 “will be strengthening accountability systems to support government leadership, constraining the role of the food industry in the formation of public policy, and encouraging civil society to create a demand for healthy food environments.”