Today, 4 March, is World Obesity Day.
2022 marks the eighth edition of the Day, which is organised annually by the World Obesity Foundation and the Lancet Commission. Its aim is to raise awareness of the implications of obesity and encourage the development of a collective solution to the issue.
Around the world, 800 million people are living with obesity – this number is predicted to rise to one billion by 2030 if action isn’t taken. With the disease often comes a plethora of health side effects, from increased risk of mortality from Covid-19, to diabetes and heart problems.
These issues are already worth paying attention to because of their human impact. But economically, they pack a punch too – the medical consequences of obesity are expected to cost more than $1 trillion by 2025.
This year’s positioning for World Obesity Day is Everybody Needs to Act. It’s an important statement, organisers say, not least because of the stigma associated with obesity, which has permeated healthcare conversations for decades.
“For too long, people living with obesity have faced stigma, blame, and barriers to support,” say organisers. “The roots of obesity are complex and systemic; they are whole-society problems, and yet individuals are frequently expected to face obesity alone.”
Among the statistics the World Obesity Federation wishes to highlight this year is the fact the greatest number of people living with obesity are from low- and middle-income countries.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has already predicted within “high-burden” African countries, one in five adults and one in ten children will be obese by December of next year.
“Africa is facing a growing problem of obesity and overweight, and the trends are rising. This is a ticking time bomb. If unchecked, millions of people, including children, risk living shorter lives under the burden of poor health,” says Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “But we can resolve the crisis, because many of the causes of obesity and overweight are preventable and reversible.”
As Dr Moeti claims, there are multiple solutions to the obesity crisis. In the UK, the Government is pushing forward – albeit slowly – with legislation that would in theory completely overhaul the country’s food landscape, with ideas like a salt tax and further levies and advertising bans against HFSS food products.
Johanna Ralston, CEO of the World Obesity Federation, notes that while actions like these are welcome, more decisive action needs to be taken. “Political and public health leaders need to recognise the gravity of the obesity challenge, and take action.
“The numbers in our report are shocking, but what is even more shocking is how inadequate our response has been. Everyone has a basic right to prevention, treatment and management access which works for them. Now is the time for joined up, decisive and people centred action to turn the tide on obesity.”
Ralston adds that action should be bolstered by the “[increasing scientific] understanding of obesity” and its causes.
According to World Obesity Day organisers, factors which increase susceptibility to obesity are varied – from a lack of sleep, to genetic risk, healthcare access, poor food availability and aggressive marketing. Crucially, organisers state: “It is not due to a lack of willpower.”
As for childhood obesity, a recent study lays the blame with ultra-processed foods, gut health and pollution.
There are several ways in which the World Obesity Federation is encouraging people to act on the messaging of this year’s event. For healthcare professionals, one of the most helpful actions is to start constructive conversations with patients.
“People with obesity routinely experience stigma and may have faced barriers to healthcare and support,” organisers say, adding that 42% of patients currently feel uncomfortable discussing weight with their GP.
There is also advice for employers on how to create a truly inclusive workplace that is “committed to change” and healthy.
Recommendations include offering insurance policies where appropriate, which support employees living with obesity, offering discounted memberships to health clubs and gyms and explicitly encouraging breaks away from computers and flexible working.