Across the world, some 39% of adults, or more than 1.9bn people, were overweight in 2016. Of these more than 650mn were obese, according to the World Health Organisation.
The prevalence of obesity has almost tripled in the past four decades and is still rising. Obesity is a “global pandemic in its own right,” the United Nations warned in 2020.
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the growing concerns. Obese people have a higher risk of suffering complications or dying from Covid-19, while also being vulnerable to diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
Being obese, which generally means having a body mass index of 30 or more, decreases lung capacity, and is linked to impaired immune function.
Obese people diagnosed with Covid-19 are more than twice as likely to be hospitalised, 74% more likely to need an intensive care unit and 48% more likely to die, according to a study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Research has also linked obesity to lower responses to numerous vaccines. Meanwhile, a UK survey found twice as many people put on weight as lost it during the initial pandemic lockdown in early 2020.
The reasons for obesity are complex.
Diet, genetics, lack of exercise and social environment all play a role. Fast-food restaurant meals, ultra-processed foods and soft drinks are among the culprits.
Industrially processed convenience food — usually loaded with salt, fat, sugar, and additives — makes up more than half of consumed calories in the US and UK, where it’s often cheaper than fresh food.
Globally, more than 3bn people can’t afford healthy and nutritious diets, according to the UN.
The Gulf region, no doubt, has an acute ailment to treat with the high prevalence of obesity and diabetes. Combined overweight and obesity rates in GCC countries are estimated to be as high as 86% among women and 77% among men.
Over the decades, the oil windfall has brought unprecedented prosperity and economic growth to the GCC. But the resultant luxury-driven passive lifestyle has taken its toll.
Obesity-related diseases may cost the six-nation Gulf Co-operation Council $68bn a year by 2022 in lost output and treatment costs, according to Booz & Co.
If unhealthy eating and obesity aren’t tackled, related health costs will exceed $1.3tn a year in the next decade, according to UN estimates.
Over the last decade, government officials alarmed by the trend have taken action, mainly with targeted taxes and new food-labelling regulations.
In the financial world, investors getting involved, too. At least 57 institutional investors with a combined $9.7tn in assets under management have signed up to the Access to Nutrition Initiative’s push for manufacturers to take a range of actions, such as linking management pay to food-quality targets and making healthy products more accessible.
Fighting the global obesity pandemic envisages a complex web of medical intervention, economic impact, regulatory stipulations, and statistical numbers.
Longer-term, however, the key to keeping obesity and the resultant complications under check, according to most experts, narrows down to a simple formula: a healthy diet combined with a sustainable exercise regime.
It’s also a straightforward equation that doesn’t burn a hole in your pockets.
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