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Friday, July 8, 2011

Global Obesity Pandemic enters "sour spot"

A menu of a fast food restaurant in New York.

Obesity Pandemic: Beyond Saturation Point- Yanks, Aussies, and the Chinese are all getting fatter

When does your neighbor’s weight become your problem too? Obesity has now reached epidemic proportions worldwide. Yet we continue to eat ourselves and the planet to death for the sake of the economy.
More than one billion adults worldwide are overweight—at least 300 million of them clinically obese— according to the World Health Organization, which also warns that obesity is a major contributor to the growing global burden of chronic disease and disability.

But here is a provocative thought: What if obesity isn’t so much a by-product of modernity, but a symptom that something else is fundamentally awry? What if the relentless emphasis on economic growth has led to ‘sweet spots’ for both environmental well-being and human wealth being overshot?

For Garry Egger, professor of lifestyle medicine at Southern Cross University, and Boyd Swinburn, professor of population health at Deakin University, both in Australia, “obesity is the canary in the coal mine that should alert us to structural problems in society.”

The two researchers produced a recent book, Planet Obesity, which argues that as obesity is endemic it cannot be merely dismissed as a result of sloth and gluttony on the part of individuals.

Obesity is an example of human success reaching and exceeding its peak, says Egger. “We can be said to be entering a ‘sour spot’, where the very success we have achieved is threatening to unravel centuries of improvements in the standards of living, levels of health and ever-increasing life spans.”
Heavier Humans

For much of human history, life was a struggle for survival, so people remained relatively lean. 

In modern times, it is no wonder that waistlines expand with access to energy-dense, nutrient-poor processed foods with high levels of sugar and saturated fats. This, along with low relativefood prices, reduced physical activity, and sophisticated marketing, has led to skyrocketing obesity rates.

For example, compare what has happened in Australia and China.

From a base of almost no obesity in the 1950s, Australia has become one of the heaviest nations on Earth. In the last 20 years, obesity rates increased faster than in any other OECD country. Today, 61 percent of adults are overweight or obese. And the proportion of people overweight is projected to rise a further 15 percent in the next 10 years. 

In the 1980s, the Chinese referred to visiting Australians as ‘jelly bellies’. China was only in the initial stages of market reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping and the widespread starvation experienced in the 1960s was still fresh in the national memory. 

Fast forward to 2011: China, now an economy in transition, has experienced a threefold increase in obesity. The overall rate is still below five percent, but in cities it is already over 20 percent and rising. While this is low compared with Western countries, the size of the country’s population means that one-fifth of the one billion overweight and obese people in the world are Chinese.

Egger and Swinburn make clear that the issues around obesity and health are complex. Indeed, much of the chronic disease associated with obesity could be linked to a low-grade body-wide inflammation influenced as much by behavioural and environmental factors as by obesity. 

However, it is clear the modern lifestyle is becoming a major health risk for diet-related chronic diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, hypertension and stroke, and many forms of cancer. The consequences range from increased risk of premature death to serious chronic conditions that reduce the overall quality of life.

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