Obesity Epidemic Out of Control

Approximately 9 million people die every year of hunger and hunger-related diseases, more than from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined, reports TheWorldCounts.com, an online service that reports on major world problems. While the share of undernourished people in the world has fallen markedly in the past three decades, an estimated 1 in 9 people around the world go to bed hungry each night. This represents a global problem that must continue to be addressed. At the same time, issues about what we eat have recently pushed their way into the nation’s headlines in a way that is hard to ignore.

According to a March report from the World Obesity Atlas, obesity, which has often been thought of as an issue of the developed world, is now a serious problem touching all regions and continents. As reported by Time magazine’s Jeffrey Kluger, today, approximately 3.12 billion people — 39% of the global population — experience obesity. Says the WOA report, by 2035, more than half of the global population (51%, or over 4 billion people) will be obese. “The total cost of treating illnesses related to obesity will be an estimated $4 trillion per year,” notes the Time magazine report. “Especially affected by the growing epidemic will be children ages 5-19, in whom obesity rates are predicted to double.” In a sharp jump from current 2023 numbers, the U.S. will register near the top, with a rate of 58%.

“The WOA posits a lot of causes for the current trend beyond the growing global popularity of cheap, highly processed Western style food. Also to blame are so-called obesogens,” reports Kluger. WebMD describes obesogens as chemicals that promote obesity by disrupting the usual way fat cells work so that they can’t release stored fat. These chemicals are often found in plastics, food packaging, household furnishings, paints, cosmetics and more. “Things only get worse when obesogens and poor diet co-occur,” he writes.

Dr. Omer Awan is a practicing radiologist physician in Baltimore who also writes about health care and public health issues. In an opinion piece for Forbes, he points out that, while America ranks as the 12th most obese country worldwide, we top the list when considering high-income countries.

“According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, more than 2 in 5 adults are obese, and nearly 1 in 5 children are obese,” he writes. “Furthermore, 19 states in America have obesity rates over 35 percent, increased from 16 states just last year. A decade ago, no states had obesity rates above 35 percent!”

He points out that the annual medical cost of obesity was nearly $173 billion in 2019.

Awan believes that the major concern with obesity in this country is food portion size. “Seriously, why do we eat more than any other country on Earth?” he writes. “A Cornell study also demonstrated that people eat more if they are given more to eat.” As an example, he notes a research study comparing American food portion sizes with those found elsewhere throughout the world. “In this study, Paris portion sizes were on average 1/4 the size of Philadelphia sizes, when comparing 11 similar eateries between the two cities,” he writes. “Even within the US, fast food portions are 4 times larger now than they were dating back to the 1950s.”

Harvard professor Jerold Mande is an adjunct professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, with a wealth of expertise and experience in national public health and food policy. In a recently posted opinion piece, he reminds us that “federal food law is clear: It bans ‘any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render (a food) injurious to health.'”

“Ultra-processed foods are industrial formulations of ingredients from substances extracted from foods or synthesized in laboratories. They are also staples of our diets,” he says. “1,600 Americans die every day from chronic food illness, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. In recent years, evidence has mounted that these chronic illnesses are caused by deleterious substances in ultra-processed foods.”

“In a recent study conducted by the National Institutes of Health to discover the cause of sharp increases in obesity in the U.S., volunteers were randomly assigned to either eat minimally processed foods or ultra-processed foods matched for daily nutrients like carbohydrates, sodium, fat, and sugar,” writes Mande. “Investigators thought weight gain would be the same in both groups, since nutrient composition was equivalent. They were wrong. While on the ultra-processed diet, people ate an additional 500 calories per day and began to rapidly gain weight. When the same people were later assigned to eat the minimally processed diet, they lost weight.”

“This is an important finding, because it raises the possibility that it’s the additives and processing — not just the percentage of fat or sugar in a diet — that make us sick,” says Mande. “More research is urgently needed … There is recent precedent for using our food safety laws to regulate chronic food illness. In 2015, the FDA banned artificial trans fats from food on the grounds that it caused heart disease, another chronic illness linked to diet. The agencies should use this same authority to regulate the design of ultra-processed foods.”

He goes on to say: “About 678,000 Americans die each year from chronic food illness. That toll is higher than all our combat deaths in every war in American history — combined. That’s right: there are more deaths each year from our food than all the combat deaths from the Revolutionary War through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”