Ever wondered why it’s called the obesity “epidemic”? As of 2008, more than one in ten people in the world were obese, according to a 2013 report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The rate of obesity worldwide has doubled since 1980, and the number has only continued to rise.
Though Americans have long been stereotyped as the face of this epidemic, new statistics show that the narrative of obesity has changed. The archetypes we once took for granted—“fat slobs in America” vs. “starving children in Africa”—are estranged from reality.
First of all, America has been overtaken by Kuwait as the world’s fattest country. 42.8 percent of Kuwait’s population is obese, compared to 31.8 percent of the United States’, according to the same FAO report. And that’s not counting the island nation of Nauru in Micronesia, in which a staggering 71.1 percent of the country’s 9,488 residents are obese.
Secondly, the developing world has surpassed the developed as a crisis zone. The rise of adult obesity in developed countries has actually slowed since 2006, according to a Lancet study in May. Meanwhile, nearly one billion people in developing countries were overweight or obese in 2013, as reported by the Overseas Development Institute earlier this year. That’s almost double the number in high-income countries such as the United States.
One of the side effects of this trend is something called “hidden hunger.” Hidden hunger is “a chronic lack of vitamins and minerals,” according to the Micronutrient Initiative, and has much less to do with the amount of food consumed than with its nutritional value. A third of people worldwide suffer from hidden hunger, and although it has no visible warning signs, it can cause mental impairment, poor health and productivity, and even death.
Of course, obesity itself comes with its own spate of health risks. People who are obese live shorter lives and are more likely to develop diabetes, heart disease, and certain kinds of cancer, reports the Harvard School of Public Health. Depression and obesity are also highly correlated, meaning that the depressed are more at risk of becoming obese and the obese are more at risk of becoming depressed, according to a 2010 study in the Archives of General Psychiatry.
Unfortunately, despite our growing awareness of the dangers of obesity, we have yet to figure out how to halt its rise. Part of this is because the weight is incredibly difficult for people to shed. A 2010 Columbia University study revealed that after losing weight, people’s bodies become dramatically less efficient at burning calories. This means that they will regain at least some of the weight just by eating the same diet as would be healthy for a person naturally that size. Similarly, a 1990 Canadian study showed that “biological determinism” plays a role; some individuals are simply better at slimming down than others.
For the moment, the only clear solution to the global obesity epidemic is to stop demonizing the overweight. Since weight-based discrimination actually leads people to put on more pounds, as shown in a recent study in the journal Obesity, fat-shaming is not only cruel but counterproductive to public health. One way to remove some of the stigma is to reframe obesity as “the new smoking,” as the chief executive of Britain’s National Health Service put it, and to remember that its prevalence worldwide marks the spread of a disease, rather than a character flaw.