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Experts say dealing with the world’s obesity crisis will take more than just telling people to eat healthily and exercise more. EMS-FORSTER-PRODUCTIONS/Getty Images
  • A new report predicts that half the world will be overweight or obese by 2035.
  • The report authors say this increase could put a strain on healthcare systems and cause $4 trillion in economic damage.
  • They say food insecurity and climate change are among the causes.
  • Experts say we need to look at how our communities are designed to deal with issues such as nutrition, transportation, and housing.

More than half the world’s population is predicted to be overweight or obese in the next 12 years, according to a new report.

The World Obesity Atlas 2023 report states the increase would amount to 1.5 billion adults and nearly 400 million children living with obesity by 2035.

The World Obesity Federation’s modeling also predicted that obesity rates would rise dramatically among children, doubling among boys to 208 million and increasing 125% among girls to 175 million.

“Governments and policymakers around the world need to do all they can to avoid passing health, social, and economic costs on to the younger generation,” Louise Baur, PhD, president of the World Obesity Federation, said in a press release. “That means looking urgently at the systems and root factors that contribute to obesity and actively involving young people in the solutions. If we act together now, we have the opportunity to help billions of people in the future.”

The report’s trend line also notes that the health and economic consequences of global obesity are potentially enormous.

The Atlas predicts that the economic impact of failing to treat and prevent these rising rates could amount to $4.32 trillion by the 2030s.

“We should all be somewhat wary of predictions of the human condition, but presently about a third of the world’s population is obese or overweight, and nothing seems to be altering that trend aside from some very expensive prescription medication,” Dr. David Cutler, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California, told Healthline. “Obesity is linked to a range of health problems, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. If obesity rates continue to rise, it could lead to an increase in these health conditions, resulting in higher healthcare costs and lower quality of life for individuals.”

Relatedly, a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that both obesity and diabetes were on the rise among young adults ages 20 to 44 from 2009 to 2020, seemingly confirming the upward trend in the United States.

Obesity rates among these young adults rose from 32% in 2009 to nearly 41% in 2020 while diabetes rates rose from 3% to 4% in the same frame.

“If 50 percent of the world’s population becomes obese by 2035, it would have far-reaching consequences for individuals and society,” Cutler said. “It highlights the urgent need for preventative measures and public health interventions to address this growing health crisis. A comprehensive approach that includes multiple strategies is likely to be most effective in altering current obesity trends.”

Some of the most significant increases in overweight and obesity rates are likely to be seen in low and lower-middle-income countries, whose health systems are among the least prepared to accommodate additional prevention and treatment efforts.

“This is not a new trend, but to see that it is continuing and affecting children is very concerning,” Dr. Wajahat Mehal, director of the Yale Metabolic Health and Weight Loss Program at Yale Medicine in Connecticut, told Healthline.

Getting quality nutritious foods is vital to a healthier life, Mehal said, but often these are expensive or difficult to obtain.

“The main issue with nutrition is the ease of availability of calorie-dense processed foods, which are designed to give a quick reward without much ability to make us feel full and satisfied,” Mehal explained. “The food environment is very unhealthy. Countries that have been successful in maintaining their traditional diets, such as Japan and Vietnam, have had a slower increase in obesity rates.”

The factors that drive increased rates of weight issues and obesity are complex and their solutions are even more so.

Experts — including the report authors — say it’s not nearly as simple as telling people to eat healthier and get more exercise.

“Let’s be clear: The economic impact of obesity is not the fault of individuals living with the disease,” said Johanna Ralston, chief executive officer of the World Obesity Federation, in a press release. “It is a result of high-level failures to provide the environmental, healthcare, food, and support systems that we all need to live happy, healthy lives.”

Various factors outside of food nutrition, including genetic predisposition and the increase of “obesogenic pollutants” in our environment, can also be driving these increases.

“Chemical pollutants have been found to have endocrine-affecting properties which promote weight gain and obesity,” the report reads. “These chemical pollutants, collectively termed endocrine disruptors, have been identified in food packaging, cosmetics, roadside dust, and household furnishings.”

Even climate change plays a part.

“Climate change increases food insecurity,” the report says. “While extreme food insecurity has been found to lead to undernutrition, mild or moderate food insecurity is linked to obesity.”

One place we can make long-term changes is in the design of our communities.

“Most broadly, the social determinants of health, almost all of them are connected in some way to the built environment, which is shaped by planning,” said Jessica Kemp, PhD, vice president of the nonprofit Center for Planning Excellence in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and lead of the organization’s Healthy Community Planning and Design Initiative.

“There’s neighborhood quality and access to access to transportation and how your access to transportation affects your access to jobs and economic opportunity as well as your access to healthy food and your access to health services,” Dr. Kemp told Healthline.

“We talk to a lot of folks in disinvested, underserved neighborhoods who won’t let their kids walk to the store, even if there’s a sidewalk, and they won’t let their kids play outside because they feel it’s not safe there,” she added. “You’ve got kids who aren’t even allowed to go outside and play, and often those are kids who are already experiencing other disadvantages in their life. It adds up.”

To combat this, we must start asking serious questions about building our communities for healthier living.

“You see obese folks who are also food insecure. It’s connected to the place they live in and their ability to access those foods, which planning has everything to do with,” Kemp said. “We have to ask: How we’re designing our transportation systems? How are we addressing the community’s need for various types of housing stock? How are we making land use decisions creating either sprawl or walkable communities, regions, and cities that are served by transit versus being car-centric? All of these planning decisions and then at the more local level, asking ‘how are resources being distributed?'”