Worldwide overweight and obesity problem ‘staggering’ – UN health agency

A balanced diet can reduce risk factors for a range of chronic diseases linked to obesity. UN Photo/Pernaca Sudhakaran

22 September 2005 – With largely preventable obesity and overweight contributing to more than 17 million deaths every year, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) warned today that more than 1 billion people worldwide are overweight and that, under current trends, the number will increase to 1.5 billion by 2015.

“The sheer magnitude of the overweight and obesity problem is staggering,” WHO Assistant Director-General of Non-communicable Diseases and Mental Health Catherine Le-Galès Camus said in the warning, issued ahead of World Heart Day on 25 September.

“The rapid increase of overweight and obesity in many low- and middle-income countries foretells an overwhelming chronic disease burden in these countries in the next 10 to 20 years, if action is not taken now,” she added.

Overweight and obesity, once considered a problem only in wealthy countries, are important risk factors for cardiovascular disease, which is the number one cause of death.

The dramatic rise in low- and middle-income countries is due to a number of factors, including a global shift in diet towards increased energy, fat, salt and sugar intake, and a trend towards decreased physical activity due to the sedentary nature of modern work and transportation, and increasing urbanisation.

According to WHO estimates, more than 75 per cent of women over the age of 30 are now overweight in countries as diverse as Barbados, Egypt, Malta, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States. Estimates are similar for men, with over 75 per cent now overweight in, for example, Argentina, Germany, Greece, Kuwait, New Zealand, Samoa, and the United Kingdom.

Notably, the small Western Pacific islands of Nauru and Tonga have the highest global prevalence of overweight, with nine out of every 10 adults overweight.

Raised body mass index is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases. WHO estimates that over the next 10 years, cardiovascular disease, primarily heart disease and stroke, will increase most notably in the regions of the Eastern Mediterranean and Africa, where cardiovascular disease-related deaths are predicted to rise by over 25 per cent.

“The real tragedy is that overweight and obesity, and their related chronic diseases, are largely preventable,” WHO Director of Chronic Diseases and Health Promotion Robert Beaglehole said. “Approximately 80 per cent of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, and 40 per cent of cancer could be avoided through healthy diet, regular physical activity and avoidance of tobacco use.”

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