New global obesity data: Which countries top the list?

Men look at a sports notice board in Vanuatu, where high rates of participation in regular physical activity has contributed to a 50 percent reduction in obesity rates from 2009-2010. Photo by: Maggie Boyle / DFAT / CC BY

CANBERRA — Since 1975, Pacific nations have seen staggering increases in the number of overweight and obese children and adults, putting them at the center of a growing health epidemic impacting developing communities.

Released to coincide with World Obesity Day on October 11, new data from the Imperial College London and World Health Organization provides country level information on the prevalence of unhealthy body weights among adult and child populations since 1975. The results lend further credence to Pacific Island nations’ calls for action targeting food marketing, a major topic of conversation during the 68th session of the World Health Organization Regional Committee for the Western Pacific, held in Brisbane last week.

Check out Devex's interactive visualization where you can analyze country data on rates of obesity.

Interactive insight on the Pacific challenge

Using the data from the study, Devex produced an interactive visualization highlighting the extent of the crisis in the Pacific.

Globally, American Samoa, Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Samoa, and Vanuatu have seen the largest increases in overweight and obese boys and girls between 1975 and 2016, as well as in obese, severely obese, and morbidly obese adults for the same period.

In 1975, the small nation of Nauru topped the list of countries with overweight and obese populations: 47 percent of girls were overweight and 36 percent of boys were. Fast forward to 2016 and Nauru still remains at the top of the list, but now with an alarming 68 percent of girls classified as overweight or worse and 62 percent of boys.

Also in 1975, Australia, Bermuda, Israel, Italy, Malta, New Zealand, Qatar, and Singapore were among the top 10 countries with a high prevalence of overweight and obese populations. But in 2016, the top 10 are strictly in the Pacific region — with Nauru the headline figure.

At the Regional Committee for the Western Pacific in Brisbane, delegates for Pacific countries spoke of the “alarming” crisis of obesity and expressed concern for the current and future health demands it would bring, including higher rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and increased pressure on already unaffordable health care. Easier and cheaper access to unhealthy and less nutritious food options were among the concerns raised.

Professor Majid Ezzati, from the Imperial School of Public Health, said that the trends shown directly reflect the impact of food marketing and policies within countries, disproportionately affecting low- and middle-income countries where healthy food options can be unaffordable.

The trends, he said, were “worrying” with an urgent need for healthier and more nutritious food at home and school — especially among poor families and communities.

A global health crisis

While the Pacific is at the forefront of the obesity epidemic, the concern is global and is growing at an alarming rate.

Among boys, 32 percent globally are considered underweight, while 26 percent of girls are, but that is a declining figure. In comparison, the rate of increase in children classified as obese has WHO predicting that obesity will be the larger childhood health concern by 2022.

Among adults, obesity is already more common than being underweight.

“These data highlight, remind, and reinforce that overweight and obesity is a global health crisis today, and threatens to worsen in coming years unless we start taking drastic action,” Fiona Bull, programme coordinator for surveillance and population-based prevention of noncommunicable diseases at WHO, told media.

How can we support healthier developing communities?

Bloomberg Philanthropies founder Michael Bloomberg called for a “robust and urgent response” in a statement following the release of the new research. “Anti-obesity policies like sugary drinks taxes are working, and the faster we spread them, the more lives we can save,” he said.

Policy and regulation provide an important way of attacking obesity, but for countries where packaged food is cheaper than raw fruit and vegetables, a comprehensive approach needs to be on the table.

There needs to be improved access and affordability to healthy alternatives. Education on the importance of healthy and nutritious food options needs to improve among adults and children. Populations need to be encouraged to live healthier lives — to eat healthier, exercise more, and reduce smoking and alcohol consumption. And WHO and other global bodies need to support governments in developing policies that will address obesity.

During the regional WHO meeting in Brisbane, Pacific countries called for WHO to deliver support and leadership in this space — a call they are taking head on to avoid yet another global health epidemic.

Interact with this new health data through our new interactive Tableau visualization and share your insights below.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.

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