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The rise of globesity: a short introduction to a big problem

The world has a weight problem

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), obesity rates have more than doubled since 1980. Today, 13% of adults around the globe are obese, while nearly four out of every 10 are overweight.

The situation among children looks good only by comparison: the WHO reports that 6.3% of children under five years of age are overweight or obese. Without intervention, these children are likely to struggle with weight into adulthood.

Obese children and adults are also likely to struggle with a range of health problems that while debilitating, are largely preventable. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity is a prime cause of:  

  • hypertension
  • type 2 diabetes
  • coronary heart disease
  • stroke
  • gallbladder disease
  • osteoarthritis
  • sleep apnoea
  • several forms of cancer
  • clinical depression
  • low quality of life
  • difficulty with physical functioning

Counting the cost

Great work is being done to tackle the problems obesity causes, but much less progress is being made toward reducing obesity itself. Obesity can have a devastating effect on the individual, but that’s just part of its impact.

According to Cornell University researchers, medical costs associated with obesity totalled $315.8 billion worldwide in 2010 – a 48% increase since 2005. And the societal costs of obesity only begin with medical care.

“$2.5 billion in excess fuel is used to transport overweight Americans”

Each year in the United States alone, obesity accounts for $8.65 billion in lost productivity, while $2.5 billion in excess fuel is used to transport overweight Americans. Add in the cost of heavier office chairs, sturdier examination tables and outsized MRI and CT scanners, and you begin to sense the scope of the problem.

These costs affect everyone, as medical care becomes more expensive for all - not just the obese.

Tackling the problem

It’s no wonder the World Health Organization coined the term “globesity” in 2001. The consequences of globesity are stark but the causes are often simple: People become obese when they take in more calories than they burn. If people were to eat less and move more, the pandemic would largely come to an end.

“The marketplace is full of solutions to tackle obesity… from military training to circus skills and underwater bicycling”

Of course, eating better and exercising more is easier said than done. Governments around the world offer simple dietary guidelines — America’s MyPlate scheme and the UK’s Eatwell Guide — and the marketplace is full of solutions ranging from fad diets to exotic exercise regimens based on everything from military training to circus skills and underwater bicycling.

Yet the pandemic rages on unchecked.

One reason, as scientists are now discovering, may be the impact of genetics both on individuals’ behavioural choices and on how bacteria in the gut affect how the body functions and stores fat. Until results are conclusive the focus needs to remain on what we know to be true: that an active lifestyle and a healthy diet offer the best hope for beating obesity.

The ease of eating

Unfortunately, modern society makes eating easier and physical exertion less necessary. We pick up lunch at the drive-thru window instead of walking into the restaurant. We chat with co-workers via text message to save a trip down the hall. We order our ever-larger clothing online and have it delivered to our doorstep.

When Honda redesigned their Fit subcompact car for 2009, no one remarked on the irony of a sporty, five-passenger vehicle boasting of 10 beverage holders.

Playing our part

At Aetna International, we believe that only a new holistic approach — one that involves food manufacturers, retailers, governments, employers and, yes, insurance companies — can help to stem the tide. While individuals must ultimately make the decision to become healthier, not everyone can come to this realisation, alter their behaviour and implement safe, informed changes to their diets and lifestyle without support.

Read our 2017 white paper on the subject.

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