Tracking the Global Epidemic
There isn’t a region in the world untouched by the obesity epidemic. Once just a problem of wealthy nations, obesity now impacts countries at all economic levels, bringing with it a wave of ill health and lost productivity.
Worldwide the rate of obesity has nearly doubled since 1980, with just over 200 million adult men and just under 300 million adult women obese. Obesity rates have been steadily rising in children, too: In 2010, 43 million preschool children were overweight or obese, a 60 percent increase since 1990. And these jumps in child and adult obesity rates show no sign of stopping without dedicated efforts to combat the epidemic.
Of all high income countries, the United States has the highest rates of overweight and obesity, with fully a third of the population obese—a rate projected to rise to around 50 percent by 2030. As with most health issues, the burden of obesity isn’t felt equally across all parts of society. The poor have higher rates than those with higher income. Those with less education have higher rates than those with more education. And certain minority groups—especially African-American and Hispanic women—have much higher rates than other groups.
Beyond North America, the regions of Europe, South and Central America, Western Pacific, and parts of Africa and Asia also have elevated obesity rates, with only a handful of areas with low and consistent levels of obesity. For many low and middle income countries already struggling in the world economy, obesity takes a particularly high toll—sapping productivity, increasing illness in sole wage earners, and further stretching health systems already burdened with persistent problems of infectious disease and even starvation and under nutrition.
The worldwide spread of obesity and resulting increase in rates of chronic disease and other serious conditions threatens health systems, economies, and individual lives. Bringing the problem back under control will take multifaceted country-level as well as global-level efforts, and they cannot begin in earnest soon enough.
The aim of the Harvard School of Public Health Obesity Prevention Source Web site is to provide timely information about obesity’s global causes, consequences, prevention, and control, for the public, health and public health practitioners, business and community leaders, and policymakers. The contents of this Web site are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Web site. The Web site’s obesity prevention policy recommendations are based primarily on a review of U.S. expert guidance, unless otherwise indicated; in other countries, different policy approaches may be needed to achieve improvements in food and physical activity environments, so that healthy choices are easy choices, for all.