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Facts & causes about

Obesity and overweight

Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975

Obesity and overweight

Overweight and obesity are defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that may impair health. Body mass index (BMI) is a simple index of weight-for-height that is commonly used to classify overweight and obesity in adults. It is defined as a person's weight in kilograms divided by the square of his height in meters (kg/m2).
BMI provides the most useful population-level measure of overweight and obesity as it is the same for both sexes and for all ages of adults. However, it should be considered a rough guide because it may not correspond to the same degree of fatness in different individuals.

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Facts about overweight and obesity

Facts about overweight and obesity

In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults aged 18 years and older were overweight. Of these over 650 million adults were obese. 39% of adults aged 18 years and over (39% of men and 40% of women) were overweight. Overall, about 13% of the world’s adult population (11% of men and 15% of women) were obese in 2016. The worldwide prevalence of obesity nearly tripled between 1975 and 2016.
In 2019, an estimated 38.2 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 overweight children under 5 has increased by nearly 24% percent since 2000. Almost half of the children under 5 who were overweight or obese in 2019 lived in Asia.
Over 340 million children and adolescents aged 5-19 were overweight or obese in 2016. The prevalence of overweight and obesity among children and adolescents aged 5-19 has risen dramatically from just 4% in 1975 to just over 18% in 2016. The rise has occurred similarly among both boys and girls: in 2016 18% of girls and 19% of boys were overweight. While just under 1% of children and adolescents aged 5-19 were obese in 1975, more 124 million children and adolescents (6% of girls and 8% of boys) were obese in 2016. Overweight and obesity are linked to more deaths worldwide than underweight. Globally there are more people who are obese than underweight – this occurs in every region except parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Key facts

  • Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were overweight. Of these over 650 million were obese.
  • 39% of adults aged 18 years and over were overweight in 2016, and 13% were obese.
  • Most of the world's population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight.
  • 39 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2020.
  • Over 340 million children and adolescents aged 5-19 were overweight or obese in 2016. Obesity is preventable.
Adopted by the World Health Assembly in 2004 and recognized again in a 2011 political declaration on noncommunicable disease (NCDs), the "WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health" describes the actions needed to support healthy diets and regular physical activity. The Strategy calls upon all stakeholders to take action at global, regional and local levels to improve diets and physical activity patterns at the population level. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes NCDs as a major challenge for sustainable development. As part of the Agenda, Heads of State and Government committed to develop ambitious national responses, by 2030, to reduce by one-third premature mortality from NCDs through prevention and treatment (SDG target 3.4). The "Global action plan on physical activity 2018–2030: more active people for a healthier world" provides effective and feasible policy actions to increase physical activity globally. WHO published ACTIVE a technical package to assist countries in planning and delivery of their responses. New WHO guidelines on physical activity, sedentary behavior and sleep in children under five years of age were launched in 2019.

healthy lifestyle

How can overweight and obesity be reduced?

Overweight and obesity, as well as their related noncommunicable 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 easiest choice (the choice that is the most accessible, available and affordable), and therefore preventing overweight and obesity.

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).

The food industry can play a significant role by:

  • reducing the fat, sugar and salt content of processed foods;
  • ensuring that healthy and nutritious choices are available and affordable to all consumers;
  • restricting marketing of foods high in sugars, salt and fats, especially those foods aimed at children and teenagers;
  • and ensuring the availability of healthy food choices and supporting regular physical activity practice in the workplace.
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, 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, particularly to the poorest individuals. An example of such a policy is a tax on sugar sweetened beverages.

What are common health consequences?

Raised BMI is a major risk factor for noncommunicable diseases such as:
  • cardiovascular diseases (mainly heart disease and stroke), which were the leading cause of death in 2012;
  • diabetes;
  • musculoskeletal disorders (especially osteoarthritis – a highly disabling degenerative disease of the joints);
  • some cancers (including endometrial, breast, ovarian, prostate, liver, gallbladder, kidney, and colon).
The risk for these noncommunicable diseases increases, with increases in BMI. Childhood obesity is associated with a higher chance of obesity, premature death and disability in adulthood. But in addition to increased future risks, obese children experience breathing difficulties, increased risk of fractures, hypertension, early markers of cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance and psychological effects.

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Source: WHO (https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight)
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