Why overnutrition is a global problem

New data shows global obesity has become a bigger problem than world hunger. But what can we do about it?   

Bupa’s National Medical Director Dr Rob Grenfell says more action needs to be taken to make healthy food the easiest option.  

Some worrying figures are making headlines. There’s been a steep rise in global obesity rates over the past four decades.

The number of obese people has risen from 105 million in 1975, to 641 million.

The figures from the biggest ever study of worldwide trends in body mass index, published in The Lancet, show globally 1 in 5 adults will be obese by 2025 and here in Australia it will be 1 in 3.

“What this analysis shows is that it’s a problem for the whole world,” says Dr Grenfell. “When you look at some of the poorer nations the number of people who are overweight or obese is not very high.”

“The trend is that even in poor or emerging economies like India or China for example, they’re shifting into the overweight or obese area. So with economic prosperity comes this problem of obesity,” says Dr Grenfell.

Dr Grenfell says it’s a major concern for our health system, already struggling to cope with a number of non-communicable diseases like cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic lung disease.

“We know that some of the most common cancers in the world are related to obesity. It goes without saying cardiovascular diseases like heart attack and stroke are strongly related to body size, as is diabetes,” he says.

 “As well as an increase in cardiovascular disease and cancers we also have an increase in joint related diseases like accelerated arthritis in hips and knees,” says Dr Grenfell.

But what can we do about it?

two kids eating salad
Dr Grenfell says it's vital to establish healthy eating habits early in life.

According a group of experts from the Obesity Policy Coalition, University of Melbourne and the Australian Health Policy Collaboration at Victoria University, who wrote a perspectives piece in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), Australia needs to urgently increase spending on the prevention of chronic diseases.

Jane Martin, the executive manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition, told MJA InSight there’s a lack of appetite from decision makers to address problems with alcohol, junk food and sugary drinks.

“You need a lot of political will and a lot of political courage because you’re often taking on big industries in addressing these issues,” Martin told MJA InSight.

Dr Grenfell says junk food is too easy to access and far too affordable.

He believes Australia should consider a tax on sugar drinks, like the UK has committed to, while making healthier foods more accessible.

“We need to control our food supply so that unnecessary food stuffs are actually difficult to have, which is actually similar to what we did with tobacco,” says Dr Grenfell.

According to Dr Grenfell it’s not about blaming individuals.

“Obesity is a complex issue, it’s about how you were brought up as a child, the food you were given, the habits you developed as a child, what your food education and supply is,” Dr Grenfell says.

“It’s important parents and young children at schools have intensified nutrition support. We need to look at how to make the healthy choice the easiest choice,” says Dr Grenfell.

While exercise is important for our overall health, Dr Grenfell says a healthy diet is key to help prevent obesity.

“The amount of exercise you’d have to do to burn off the average Australian diet is extreme,” says Dr Grenfell. “The problem is many of us are actually eating too much.”

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