04 Mar 2021

Solving the obesity crisis

Dr Renata Micha Chair of the Global Nutrition Report's Independent Expert Group and Associate Professor in Human Nutrition at the University of Thessaly, Greece

Image by PowerPlay Obesity Management

On World Obesity Day, Dr Renata Micha outlines the scale of the world’s obesity crisis, and explains why 2021 is a crucial year for authorities if they are to solve a growing crisis.

Obesity is on the rise, and current initiatives and policies aimed at fighting it have been insufficient to reverse the trend. The success of tackling the obesity pandemic depends on governments, businesses and civil society working together to fix inadequacies in our food and health systems, focusing on better nutrition and diets for all.

This year, on World Obesity Day, it has never been more important to recognise that improving nutrition and addressing poor diets needs to be at the forefront of collective efforts to tackle obesity. The Covid-19 pandemic is interlinked with the slower, yet no less devastating, pandemic of food and nutrition insecurity, obesity, diabetes and other diet-related conditions. The top predictors of severe Covid-19 complications, other than age, are diet-related risks such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. In fact, a recent global analysis suggests that being obese doubles the risk of hospital treatment and increases the risk of dying from Covid-19 by nearly 50%.

Obesity is no longer just an issue in wealthier countries. Levels are on the rise in most countries, with a dramatic knock-on effect on health, quality of life, productivity, inequities and healthcare costs. According to the latest data from the Global Nutrition Report, one in three people globally are overweight or obese, while no country is on course to halt the rise of obesity. In the last two decades, the number of children categorised as overweight or obese has more than doubled on a global scale, with data showing an increase of 3.3% to 7.8% among boys aged five to 19, and 2.5% to 5.6% among girls of the same age.

Countries can no longer afford to neglect the global nutrition crisis that has led to the obesity pandemic. At least 2.8 million people around the world die each year as a result of being overweight or obese. At the same time, the global medical costs of treating the consequences of obesity are staggering and expected to rise to $1.2 trillion annually by 2025. Good nutrition is central to tackling obesity and to building healthier, more resilient populations that are better equipped against Covid-19 and future pandemics. 

A shift in mindset

To stop the obesity pandemic, the world needs a shift in mindset, recognising that this is not simply a matter of individual choices but a systemic issue that governments, civil society and businesses can and should solve.

Access to healthy, affordable food depends on our food systems, which are currently contributing to poor diets, food insecurity, rising obesity levels, growing inequities and environmental pressures. Even with the unprecedented rise in diet-related diseases, in many parts of the world, agricultural production still focuses on staple commodities, rather than a broader range of more diverse, healthier foods, such as fruits, vegetables and nuts. Fresh, perishable foods are often less accessible and affordable compared to staple foods, meaning that for many, eating healthily is not a viable option. Meanwhile, junk food is widely available, cheap and intensively marketed, with advertising often targeting children and lower income communities.

Solutions that work are emerging around the world to help address food and nutrition. Governments are implementing fiscal incentives and disincentives, such as subsidies for fruits and vegetables and taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages. Regulations around point-of-purchase labelling, such as those adopted by Chile, marketing restrictions such as the UK’s recent proposal to ban online junk food advertising, as well as added sugar and sodium reduction targets for the food industry released in the US, all go a long way towards promoting healthier diets and reducing diet-related diseases.

These solutions now need to be scaled up dramatically, along with new evidence-based policies that go beyond educational policy measures to transform food systems and address obesity. This will require mobilisation from the academic community to prioritise research on innovative food and nutrition strategies. Crucially, it requires concerted action and investments from governments, businesses and civil society, working across sectors, to implement food and nutrition priorities that benefit all.

Better integration of nutrition into healthcare systems is also critical. Even before Covid-19, healthcare systems were overwhelmed by diet-related diseases. Yet, in many parts of the world, nutrition care is entirely absent from healthcare systems. Nutrition care needs to be made universally available, given the role it plays in determining our health and wellbeing.

A year for action

With key moments including the UN Food Systems Summit and the Tokyo Nutrition For Growth Summit on the horizon, 2021 provides a unique opportunity for governments, civil society and the private sector to work together to tackle food and nutrition through strong and measurable commitments.  

This will require acting at every step of the food and nutrition chain – from the way we produce and market food, to the way we help individuals adapt behaviours, make healthier choices and improve their health. Governments, civil society and the private sector will need to recognise the role they can play in this process and will be expected to make the bold commitments that nutrition deserves.

Renata Micha is Chair of the Independent Expert Group of the Global Nutrition Report and Associate Professor in Human Nutrition at the University of Thessaly, Greece. This blog was originally published as an op-ed in the New Food Magazine.

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