Obesity is a global problem that affects millions of lives. Obesity may be defined as the abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that may impair health. Body mass index (BMI) is a simple calculation using the weight and height of a person. This is commonly used to classify people based on fat content. For adults, The World Health Organisation defines overweight persons as those with a BMI greater than or equal to 25 and obese persons as those with a BMI greater than or equal to 30.
Worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980. In 2014, more than 600 million adults were obese. Overall, about 13% of the world’s adult population (11% of men and 15% of women) were obese in 2014.
In 2014, an estimated 41 million children under the age of 5 years were overweight or obese. Once considered a high-income country problem, overweight and obesity are now on the rise in low and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings. In Africa, the number of children who are overweight or obese has nearly doubled from 5.4 million in 1990 to 10.6 million in 2014. Nearly half of the children under 5 who were overweight or obese in 2014 lived in Asia. Death due to obesity is on the rise worldwide. This occurs in every region except parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. This is an alarming situation.
The statistics above from W.H.O should dispel the notion that obesity is a problem only in the developed world. Children in low and middle-income countries are more vulnerable to inadequate prenatal, infant, and young child nutrition. At the same time, these children are exposed to high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt, energy-dense, and micro-nutrient poor foods, which tend to be lower in cost and nutrient quality. These dietary patterns, in conjunction with lower levels of physical activity, result in a sharp increase in childhood obesity while malnutrition issues remain unsolved.
We need to take certain measures in order to prevent this from happening. At the individual level, people can:
- Limit energy intake from total fats and sugars;
- Increase consumption of fruit and vegetables, as well as legumes, whole grains and nuts; and
- Engage in regular physical activity (60 minutes a day for children and 150 minutes spread through the week for adults).
Individual responsibility can only have its full effect where people have access to a healthy lifestyle. Therefore, at the societal level it is important to support individuals in following the recommendations above. We can create a healthier world through sustained implementation of evidence based and population based policies that make regular physical activity and healthier dietary choices available, affordable and easily accessible to everyone.
The food industry can also play a significant role in promoting healthy diets by:
- Reducing the fat, sugar and salt content of processed foods.
- Ensuring that healthy and nutritious choices are available and affordable to all consumers.
Obesity, as well as their related non-communicable diseases, are largely preventable. Supportive environments and communities are fundamental in shaping people’s choices. By making the choice of healthier foods and regular physical activity the most accessible and affordable we can help prevent obesity.