New data on almost 13 million people, from 200 countries around the world, points to a tenfold increase in rates of obesity among children and adolescents over the last four decades. This is the largest study of its kind, and it paints a startling and depressing picture of a world that is getting fatter.
The research also reveals that the rise in child and adolescent obesity in high income countries is beginning to slow down. And that in low and middle income countries – especially in Asia – it is accelerating.
These findings should not be a surprise to anyone. Obesity is an issue with no geographical, ethnicity, age or gender boundaries. Rather, obesity is the inevitable consequence of an “obesogenic” environment that we have constructed for ourselves. If we surround children with foods that are high in fat and sugar and restrict their opportunities to run around, they are at risk of developing obesity.
Obesity is a visible sign that all is not well with the world, and it is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, the burden of chronic diseases is growing – and nobody is immune. The problem is that we have restructured our environment to be the exact opposite of what we need to maintain our energy balance.
n one side of the equation, our food supply is dominated by energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods that are available 24 hours a day. In the US alone, companies spend $1.79bn (£1.37bn) annually to market unhealthy food to children, compared with only $280m on healthy foods. In Canada, over 90 per cent of food and beverage product ads viewed by children and youth online are for unhealthy food products.
On the other side of the energy-balance equation, our towns and cities have been designed to support motorised transportation, instead of human-powered movement through walking or cycling. This creates a dependency on cars that further impacts individual physical activity.
Perhaps most shocking is how unwilling we are as a society to do anything to address these unhealthy environments that have shaped our behaviour over the last few decades. We seem to find it far easier to point the finger of blame at individuals for making poor choices, than to address the complex web of factors that contribute to obesity worldwide.
There can be no dispute that everyone has a right to good health. But if we want to improve the lives of everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, wherever they live in the world, then we must, as a society, commit to making healthy choices easier for everyone to adopt.