More than 1B people live with obesity globally, study shows. What about Canada? 

Click to play video: '1 in 8 people living with obesity: WHO'
1 in 8 people living with obesity: WHO
More than 1 billion people around the world are now living with obesity, according to the World Health Organization. As health reporter Katherine Ward explains, doctors say it's an alarming trend that must be addressed. – Feb 29, 2024

More than one billion people worldwide are grappling with obesity, with children in particular experiencing alarming increases in numbers, a new study shows.

A global analysis published in the Lancet on Thursday found that obesity rates in children and adolescents across the world surged fourfold from 1990 to 2022. During this period, obesity rates more than doubled in adult women and nearly tripled in adult men.

“It is very concerning that the epidemic of obesity that was evident among adults in much of the world in 1990 is now mirrored in school-aged children and adolescents,” said Majid Ezzati, senior author and professor at Imperial College London’s School of Public Health.

“At the same time, hundreds of millions are still affected by undernutrition, particularly in some of the poorest parts of the world. To successfully tackle both forms of malnutrition it is vital we significantly improve the availability and affordability of healthy, nutritious foods,” he said in a Thursday press release.

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The new study was conducted by the NCD Risk Factor Collaboration, in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO). To find the data, researchers looked at weight and height measurements from over 220 million people aged five years or older, representing more than 190 countries. The goal of the study was to understand how obesity and being underweight have changed worldwide from 1990 to 2022.

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Children at risk of childhood obesity as summer vacations start

In total, 159 million children and adolescents (65 million girls and 94 million boys) were living with obesity in 2022. Comparatively, 31 million children and adolescents in 1990 were living with obesity.

In adults, the study found that an estimated nearly 880 million adults were living with obesity in 2022 (504 million women and 374 million men), four and a half times the 195 million recorded in 1990 (128 million women and 67 million men).

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The study also found that over the same period, rates of underweight fell among children, adolescents and adults, leading to obesity becoming the most common form of malnutrition in many countries.

“This new study highlights the importance of preventing and managing obesity from early life to adulthood, through diet, physical activity, and adequate care, as needed,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, in a Thursday media release.

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“Getting back on track to meet the global targets for curbing obesity will take the work of governments and communities, supported by evidence-based policies from WHO and national public health agencies. Importantly, it requires the cooperation of the private sector, which must be accountable for the health impacts of their products,” he added.

Where does Canada fall?

The rise in the double-burden of obesity and those who are underweight, has been greatest in some low-and middle-income countries, the study said, including parts of the Caribbean and the Middle East.

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In these countries, obesity rates are now higher than in many high-income countries, particularly in Europe. In some European countries like Spain, there are indications obesity rates could be starting to decline or at least stagnate.

Countries with the highest prevalence of obesity in 2022 were the island nations of Tonga and American Samoa for women and American Samoa and Nauru for men in Polynesia and Micronesia, where more than 60 per cent of the adult population was living with obesity.

And nations with the highest prevalence of obesity in 2022 were Niue and Cook Islands for both girls and boys, where more than 30 per cent of the child and adolescent population were living with obesity.

Click to play video: 'New obesity guidelines in Canada'
New obesity guidelines in Canada

Although rates of obesity are higher in low-and middle-income countries, Canada is not immune.

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Dr. Sanjeev Sockalingam, scientific director for Obesity Canada, said one in four Canadians are living with obesity, which is “a significant concern.”

“We know obesity is a chronic medical condition,” he said. “It’s associated with many complications, such as increased mortality. Obesity leads to other health conditions like diabetes, arthritis, cancers and mental health conditions.”

And then we also see that people living with obesity, obviously have a shortened life span and result of all these medical conditions as well. And so that burden is tremendous,” he added.

According to 2022 data from the Lancet study, Canada ranks 50th globally for obesity in men and 104th for women. Regarding obesity in children, Canada ranks 80th for girls and 94th for boys.

Why the rise?

The authors of the study believe the shift in the onset of obesity in young people over the three decades could be because of access to commercial and processed foods in school-aged children.

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It has also been hypothesized that some leisure-time play and sports have been replaced by sedentary activities, but data on trends are scarce, the research said.

Ezzati said financial hardship is a contributing factor.

“It is expensive to eat healthily. And the rising cost of food, in the past few years hasn’t helped. But one of the roles of policy is actually to bring good health to people before they are wealthy,” he said during a Thursday press conference.

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Price growth at the grocery store in Canada has cooled from recent highs, but prices were still up 3.4 per cent in January.

Sanjeev believes that genetics, environmental factors, and societal influences play significant roles in determining obesity rates in Canada.

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“Despite our best efforts, we still have not been able to curb or reverse some of these trends,” he said. “It’s also the abundance of high, caloric foods, the environments in which we live in social media, and advertisements, that have also bombarded us with images of foods that may not be, part of our healthy lifestyle, but also our lifestyle as a whole.”

“In Canada, in more rural and underserved areas, the price of nutritious food can be quite ridiculous. And for the average family, trying to feed children, that can be a huge limitation on what you’re going to access.”

He added that if obesity isn’t addressed promptly, global rates will continue to climb, with children and youth remaining the most vulnerable. This trend will have a tremendous impact on people’s lives and society as a whole.

— with files from Reuters

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