New data show that obesity rates in the United States and other nations will hit alarming levels in the next 20 years if nothing changes, prompting researchers to call on governments to take the lead in fighting the increasingly global epidemic.
The call comes as the United Nations is set to hold its first high-level meeting on non-communicable diseases Sept. 19-20 in New York.
“The inexorable global rise of obesity will be the toughest challenge they face,” study authors wrote in one study published in a four-part obesity series in The Lancet. In an accompanying editorial, the journal makes an “urgent call” to establish a framework for obesity control similar to the one the World Health Organization is using to help reduce tobacco use.
In the U.S. alone, study authors expect 65 million more obese adults by 2030 if trends continue. That would mean that 50% of the nation’s men would be obese and 45% to 52% of women would be obese, one of the studies showed. There are 99 million obese individuals in the U.S — about one in three people — although rates vary by sex and ethnicity.
Obesity problems extend well beyond America’s borders. One in four women is obese in the United Kingdom and Australia; seven of 10 women in Tonga are obese as well. Worldwide, about 1.5 billion adults are overweight and an additional half-billion are obese, the research showed. Researchers expect another 11 million obese people in the United Kingdom by 2030.
Price of inaction
Those extra numbers on the scale translate to an increase in health problems. In the U.S., authors of one of the studies expect to see 7.8 million extra cases of diabetes by 2030, 6.8 million more cases of coronary heart disease and stroke, and 539,000 extra cancer cases if weight gain continues.
However, a population level decrease in BMI by just 1% would avoid 2.05 to 2.4 million diabetes cases, 1.4 to 1.7 million cases of heart disease and stroke, and 73,000 to 127,000 cancer cases, the study found.
“It might be hard, but if nothing is done, the future isn’t great. We can’t afford inaction,” said Y. Claire Wang, MD, ScD, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor of health policy and management at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York. “Our article shows this is a policy issue.”
Shifting agricultural policies to incorporate health outcomes, banning unhealthy food marketing to children, and taxing unhealthy food and drinks are among changes governments can make to try to reverse the obesity trend, Dr. Wang said.
Patrick McBride, MD, MPH, who has worked on the obesity issue at the state and national levels, agreed that governments and others need to work together to stem the obesity problem.
“People need to think broadly and more systematically,” said Dr. McBride, a professor of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “This is an opportunity for physicians to partner with public health groups because this isn’t something that physicians alone can fix. Physicians can play adviser roles and education roles.”
Dr. McBride said the obesity projections in The Lancet provide a longer look at what is on the horizon than other studies have. He said it shows that the problem will continue to grow.
“So knowing this, what can we do to prevent it?” he said. “For physicians, let’s be part of the solution locally and nationally.”
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