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Obesity rising

Flickr, --Ed Yourdon

Obesity is not one of the sexiest global health problems.

Unlike infectious diseases such as malaria, where children are viewed as innocent victims of a malicious virus, obesity is commonly perceived as a result of poor lifestyle choices made by adults.

The global health community cannot afford to ignore the problem of obesity and overweight. Globally, it killed 3.4 million people in 2010 alone. According to new findings published as part of the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013, more and more people in developing countries are joining the ranks of the world’s obese, especially women.

Between 1980 and 2013, obesity and overweight (BMI ≥ 25 kg/m2) rose by 27.5% in adults and by 47.1% in children worldwide. Obesity and overweight contribute to conditions that cause death and suffering, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and joint pain.

Obesity and overweight are an increasing threat to the health of the developing world. More than half (62%) of the world’s obese live in developing countries. The video below, which uses IHME’s new Obesity and Overweight Viz tool, shows how obesity and overweight grew in every age group.

“In many developing countries, we see the co-existence of overnutrition in adults and undernutrition in children,” said Marie Ng, the study’s lead author.

The screen grab below illustrates how obesity and overweight (“high body mass index”) rank as a risk factor for premature death and disability in Southeast Asian countries compared to childhood underweight. Obesity and overweight ranked higher than childhood underweight in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Top 25 causes of early death and disability in Southeast Asian countries, 2010

Top Causes Death Disability

In developing countries, obesity and overweight disproportionately impact women, as shown in the screen grab below.

Prevalence of overweight and obesity in men (green) and women (purple) in developing countries, 1980-2013


In some countries, the differences in levels of obesity and overweight between men and women are more dramatic. In South Africa, which had one of the highest rates of obesity and overweight in sub-Saharan Africa in 2013 at 53%, the prevalence of obesity and overweight was 39% in men and 69% in women. The following screen grab compares prevalence between males and females across age groups.

Prevalence of obesity and overweight in males and females by age group in 2013, South Africa


Other examples of developing countries where prevalence of obesity and overweight in women far exceeds that in men include diverse countries such as (click on links to see the data) Senegal, Algeria, Haiti, Moldova, and Sri Lanka.

In some developing countries, the most extreme form of overweight—obesity (BMI ≥ 30 kg/m2)— exceeded 50% in women in countries such as the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Libya, Samoa, and Tonga (see screen grab below).


Which countries’ approaches could be emulated by developing countries to stem the tide of obesity? So far, no country in the world has succeeded in reducing obesity in the last 33 years. National initiatives to curb this epidemic, however, such as Mexico’s efforts to encourage exercise and reduce consumption of junk food and soda, will be important to watch.

Katie Leach-Kemon, a weekly contributor of global health visual information posts for Humanosphere, is a policy translation specialist from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.


About Author

Katie Leach-Kemon

Katherine (Katie) Leach-Kemon is a policy translation specialist at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). Katie specializes in two of IHME's research areas, the Global Burden of Disease and health financing. Katie has helped produce IHME's Financing Global Health report since it was first published in 2009. She received an MPH from the University of Washington and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger. Her work has been published in The Lancet, Health Affairs, and the Journal of the American Medical Association. You can follow her on Twitter @kleachkemon.