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Risk factor: Diet

A global 'nutrition transition' is under way. Obesity levels are rising, with a concurrent increase in chronic diseases, such as diabetes.

Changing diet, expanding waistlines …

Today, brand recognition and advertising drive many consumption decisions – what we eat is increasingly both produced and consumed outside the home. The resulting ‘nutrition transition’ has been startling – food tends to be more unhealthy, containing higher levels of fat, sugar and oils, but it is also cheap and freely available.

In some developing countries, particularly in Africa, underweight rather than overweight remains the major risk factor in death and disability. However, as incomes increase and the most desperate poverty is eradicated, the influx of cheap and unhealthy foods can lead to rapid weight gain in developing countries – and overweight can mask serious deficiencies in vitamins and minerals.

Unless urgent action is taken, the nutrition transition – in combination 
with other risk factors such as tobacco smoking and lack of exercise – will lead 
to even more weight gain and higher levels of disease.

The extent of the problem

Obesity levels are rising across the world, in developing as well as developed countries. It does not take much to cause weight gain – it is estimated that, for a 35-year-old man, an average daily increase of only 3.7 kcal above the level required to maintain steady weight would explain the rise in obesity in the United States between 1980 and 1994.

While in developed countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, the invention of new drugs can help to keep diseases in which overweight is a risk factor (such as CVD and diabetes) under control, people in developing countries often do not have access either to the drugs or to the information that would allow them to make informed nutrition choices. In the United States, it is estimated that obesity and related illnesses cost about $120 billion per year and cause 300,000 premature deaths.

Overweight and obesity graph

Source: International Obesity TaskForce. BMI is body mass index, statistics are for 2000 (1998 for India).