Updated: Oct 8, 2022
Hey readers! Welcome if you are new, and welcome back if you are a returning reader. In this month's blog post, I am going to share some scary statistics about the rising rates of obesity on our planet. And seriously, these figures are very alarming. I might even argue that this obesity epidemic could be a more pressing issue than COVID or even global warming. Obesity itself can be caused by a variety of factors, including genetic, metabolic, endocrine, psychological, and environmental. The purpose of this blog post is not to discuss the causes for obesity in general, but rather to discuss the rising rates of obesity and why the rates might be increasing. Before we get into the statistics of obesity, let's first talk about what obesity is and how it differs from being categorized as "overweight."
What is Obesity?
Obesity is a state of having excessive fat (i.e. adipose tissue) accumulation beyond certain threshold levels, and as stated in the introduction, it can be caused by a variety of factors, but that is outside the discussion of this post. Obesity is generally identified via quantitative clinical measurements. The two most commonly used clinical measurements used to identify obesity are body mass index (BMI) and body composition testing (i.e. body fat percentage).
BMI is a rough estimate that can suggest if a person's weight is healthy or not. BMI is a number calculated from your total mass and height. A BMI between 18.5 - 25 is considered "normal weight," while a BMI less than 18.5 is considered "underweight." A BMI of 25 - 30 is considered "overweight," and a BMI of 30 or more is classified as "obese." There are some pitfalls of using BMI to determine if a person is obese or not. While a full review of the pros/cons of BMI is outside the scope of this post, in general, BMI can be faulty because it only takes into account your weight and height, and it does not discriminate between lean mass and fat mass. In fact, some bodybuilders can be labeled as "obese" by BMI simply because their high lean muscle mass increases their overall body mass. If you are interested in calculating your BMI, there are several online calculators that can do so for you. Just search "BMI online calculator" into your search engine.
Body composition testing, also referred to as body fat percentage, uses various instruments to determine the amount of fat mass on your body compared to your lean mass. This method of classification for obesity is way more accurate than BMI. Men with body fat percentages between 18 - 24% are considered average, or healthy body fat levels. Males who regularly engage in physical fitness and/or athletics may have even less body fat, with percentages ranging from 6 - 17%. Obese men, on the other hand, are identified as having 25% or more fat mass on their body. Women typically have higher levels of body fat compared to men. For a typical female, a body fat percentage between 21 - 24% is considered average, or normal body fat, while females who engage in regular fitness activities and/or sports may see body fat percentages between 14 - 24%. For women, obesity is identified with body fat levels higher than 32%. If you are interested in knowing your body fat percentage, most gyms and fitness studios have equipment to determine that. You could also ask your physician if they can calculate it for you.
The Rising Rates of Obesity Worldwide
So, the global data on obesity rates is very scary. In general, as a global population, it seems that we are all gaining more mass. I hate to say it so bluntly, but the data strongly suggests that to be true.
In the U.S., currently about 40% of the population is obese. Read that again. Nearly 40% of the entire U.S. population is considered obese. That is nearly half of our country! And, what is more alarming, the rate of obesity has been growing rapidly since the 1970's, where the U.S. obesity rate was only about 10%. Experts estimate that nearly 50% of the U.S. population will be obese by 2030. Y'all, that means in about 8 years from now, half the country may be obese. What is also scary is that there has been a 4-fold increase in youth obesity in the U.S. since the 1970's. Thus, in the U.S., obesity appears to be rising among all ages.
And the data from the rest of the globe is not any better. Currently, more than 90% of all countries on the globe are seeing significant increases in obesity rates over the last 40 years. Read that sentence again too. Almost all countries are seeing serious increases in obesity rates over the last four decades. Also, by 2030, experts estimate that 30% of all adults across the globe will be identified as obese. These numbers are terrifying to me because it suggests that the entire global population is gaining more mass, at least at the population-level. So, the big question is, why? Why does the global population seem to be gaining more mass? And, why does it matter? What does obesity do to the human body? Let's dissect each of these questions in a little more detail.
Why the Increase in Obesity Rates?
There are several hypotheses about why obesity rates are increasing so rapidly and with such wide-spread ferocity across the globe, including: Food environment and dietary changes, changes in physical activity, aging population, and drug-induced weight-gain. Keep in mind that obesity itself can be caused by factors outside the control of any one person including, genetic, metabolic, endocrine, and/or psychological conditions, but the purpose of this post isn't to discuss why obesity exists in general; rather, this post is aiming to present hypotheses about why the rates of global obesity are rising so rapidly.
The food environment of our globe has changed drastically over the last few decades, where fast-food restaurants are more readily available in a larger number of communities. The foods typically served as fast-food chains are usually higher in calories but lower in nutrition. There has also been an increase in consumption of highly palatable (but also processed) foods as well as an increase in the number of sweeteners added to foods. All of these changes increase the caloric intake quite a bit. In fact, over the last 60 years, the amount of daily calories consumed by humans on the planet has increased by 15-20%, or by about 700 calories per day. And, many people and families alike tend to eat more meals away from home than ever before. Currently, most Americans consume about 60% of their meals away from home. This can be a problem because most restaurants serve way bigger portions than we should eat in one sitting, AND they use way more fats/sugars/etc. to make the food so pleasing to eat.
There has also been changes in the physical activity levels of most humans on the planet. As our technological prowess as a global culture increases, unfortunately, our need for movement has decreased at home, in the community, and at work. In 1960, about 50% of the global jobs required moderate-to-heavy physical activity, while in 2010 only about 18% of the jobs require that level of physical output. Also, jobs with sedentary or light physical activity has increased from 50% in 1960 to 80% in 2010. Thus, the reality seems to be that, we are moving less, sitting more, and eating more as a global population.
Globally, the population of the world also seems to be living longer than ever before. As people age, there is simply more opportunity to accumulate more adipose tissue. But also, as people age, they tend to move less and sit more. Also, older individuals expend less calories as certain metabolic processes are down-regulated with age.
Finally, another potential cause for obesity rates rising might be that humans appear to be using more medicines that can bring side effects, such as weight gain. For example, look at anti-depressant use in this U.S. Anti-depressant use, which can carry a risk of weight-gain (especially in the first 7 years of use) is increasing. There has been about a 50% increase in anti-depressant use from 1999 to 2014 in those 12 years and older. And, about 13% of individuals older than 12 years currently use anti-depressants. Please let me state, however, that I do not believe there is anything wrong at all with taking anti-depressants, mental health medicine, or any medicine for that matter, especially if your physician recommends or prescribes it. What is alarming to me is that the data seems to suggest that, at the population-level at least, we are eating more unhealthy foods, gaining more weight, moving our bodies much less, and taking more medicines that can affect body weight. And please understand, I am not at all saying these things are bad, wrong, etc. I am merely trying to explain what the reality seems to be based on the data.
How can Obesity Affect the Human Body?
So, it seems clear that obesity rates are rising globally, and this might be, at least in part, due to our global feeding habits, movement behaviors, and medication usage, but why does this matter at all? What does obesity do to the human body? Well, to be honest, I could write a million blogs on this very topic, and I will share more information about this over the course of the next several months. But, for now, I will leave it at this. Obesity has wide-ranging effects on the human body. The result of carrying excess body fat affects EVERY BODY SYSTEM. Read that statement again and again. Obesity quite literally affects every single part of a human body - the immune system, endocrine system, musculoskeletal system, nervous system, cardiovascular system, digestive system, respiratory system, and reproductive/urinary systems. Obesity also seems to affect nearly every single metabolic pathway in the body. But more on this to come in future blogs.
Phew! Thanks for staying with me until the end of this post. The data on obesity rates in the U.S. and globally strongly suggests that we are gaining more mass, moving our bodies much less, sitting way more, eating way more processed and unnatural foods, and taking more medications. If we don't do something about this pressing issue, we will likely continue to become more and more obese as a global population. This obesity epidemic is sadly very real. But, maybe we can try reverse these trends by trying to move more during the day, sit less, and eat more natural foods from home. Of course these actions wouldn't eliminate obesity entirely, as there are other genetic, physiological, and psychological causes for it that go way beyond movement or eating habits alone. But, maybe it's at least a place to start. Please know, I am aware there is a human side of obesity, and I am not in any way trying offend or put blame on anyone. Rather, the information presented here is simply meant to be an objective discourse of what seems to be true, based on the data. How can we attempt to help or reduce any pressing issue on this planet if we don't first take an honest look at the data? And this data seems to suggest that the global population seems to be eating more, gaining more mass, and moving less. Stay tuned for future blog posts that will dig much deeper into the physiology of obesity.
As always, the information presented in this blog post is derived from my own study of human movement, anatomy and physiology, and yoga. If you have questions about your body, please follow up with your physician, physical therapist, or private yoga teacher. If you are interested in private yoga and/or personal training sessions with me, Jackie, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about my services. Also, please subscribe to my website so you can receive my monthly newsletters (scroll to the bottom of the page where you can submit your email address). This will help keep you "in-the-know" about my latest blog releases and other helpful yoga and wellness information. Thanks for reading!
~Namaste, Jackie Allen, M.S., M.Ed., CCC-SLP, RYT-200, RCYT, NASM-CPT, NASM-CES, NASM-CNC
Afshin, A. et al. (2017). Health effects of overweight and obesity in 195 countries over 25 years. The New England Journal of Medicine, 377(1), 13–27.
Chau, J. et al. (2017). Trends in prevalence of leisure time physical activity and inactivity: Results from Australian National Health surveys 1989 to 2011. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 41(6), 617–24.
Church, T. S. et al. (2011). Trends over 5 decades in U.S. occupation-related physical activity and their associations with obesity.” PloS One, 6(5), e19657.
Gafoor, R. et al. (2018). Antidepressant utilisation and incidence of weight gain during 10 years’ follow-up: Population based cohort study. BMJ.
Gu, J. K. et al. (2016). Prevalence and trends of leisure-time physical activity by occupation and industry in U.S. workers: The national health interview survey 2004–2014. Annals of Epidemiology, 26(10): 685–92.
Guh, D. P. et al. (2009). The incidence of co-morbidities related to obesity and overweight: A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Public Health, 9(1): 88.
Hales, C. M. et al. (2017, October). Prevalence of obesity among adults and youth: United States, 2015-2016.” NCHS Data Brief, no. 288. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db288.pdf
Heshka, S., & Allison, D. B. (2001). Is obesity a disease? International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders: Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity 25(10): 1401–4.
Li, S. et al. (2010). Physical activity attenuates the genetic predisposition to obesity in 20,000 men and women from EPIC-Norfolk prospective population study. PLoS Medicine, 7(8).
Luhar, S. et al. (2018). Trends in the socioeconomic patterning of overweight/obesity in India: A repeated cross-sectional study using nationally representative data. BMJ Open, 8(10), e023935.
Maffetone, P. B., & Laursen, P. B. (2017). The prevalence of overfat adults and children in the U.S. Frontiers in Public Health, 5, 290.
Nyberg, S. T. et al. (2018). Obesity and loss of disease-free years owing to major non-communicable diseases: A multicohort study. The Lancet Public Health, 3(10), e490–97.
Ogden, C. L. et al. (2016). Trends in obesity prevalence among children and adolescents in the United States, 1988-1994 through 2013-2014. JAMA, 315(21), 2292-2299.
Pratt, L. A. et al. (2017). Antidepressant use among persons aged 12 and over: United States, 2011-2014. NCHS Data Brief. Number 283. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db283.pdf
Schaller, N. et al. (2005). Estimated physical activity in Bavaria, Germany, and its implications for obesity risk: Results from the BVS-II study. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2(6).
Steffen, L. M. et al. (2006). Population trends in leisure-time physical activity: Minnesota heart survey, 1980-2000. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 38(10), 1716-1723.
Yang, X. et al. (2006). Risk of obesity in relation to physical activity tracking from youth to adulthood. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 38(5), 919.