Slowly becoming a global health epidemic, the prevalence of obesity has risen drastically over the past two decades. The World Health Organization defines obesity as an abnormal or excessive fat accumulation with a body mass index greater or equal to 30.

Weight- and obesity-related health problems include heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes, to name a few. A recent report estimates that 2.1 billion people, nearly 30% of the world population, are obese or overweight. The global health problem is no longer confined to advanced countries. In fact, more than 60% of the obese population lives in developing countries.

As emerging economies continue to industrialize, a subsequent increase in income has led to high caloric intake. In comparison, there are 805 million undernourished people in the world and roughly 2.5 times greater prevalence of overweight and obese people. As obesity continues to trend towards an epidemic, the crisis is not just a health risk but also an economic threat.

Key Facts

According to the WHO, between 1980 and 2014, the frequency of obesity worldwide more than doubled. Overall, in 2014, 38% of men and 40% of women aged 18 years or older were considered overweight. Furthermore, 11% of men and 15% of women were obese.

As many might suspect, the highest proportion of the obese population lives in the United States. Behind the U.S., countries with emerging economies like China and India have the highest number of obese and overweight individuals. Currently, obesity is responsible for 5% of deaths and is linked to more deaths worldwide than being underweight. As the epidemic continues to rise, research indicates that obesity can shorten life expectancy by eight years.

Economic Cost

The rise in weight- and obesity-related problems has not only cost billions of people their health but also carries significant costs to the economy. It is estimated that obesity, along with smoking and armed violence, is one of the top three social burdens generated by humans. Roughly equal to that of smoking and armed war, the economic impact of obesity amounts to $2 trillion annually and roughly 2.8% of the global GDP. At its current pace, obesity is estimated to affect almost half of the world’s adult population by 2030.

In particular, weight and obesity treatments have increased the cost of healthcare. In America, it is estimated that obesity is adding $190 billion annually to the price of healthcare. Diabetes accounts for a majority of healthcare costs, as 30% of overweight people have the disease while 85% of diabetics are overweight. Of the excessive costs, obese men accumulate an additional $1,152 a year in medical spending, while obese women account for an extra $3,615 per year. Likewise, childhood obesity alone costs $14.1 billion a year with average health expenses costing over $6,000 per obese child.

In addition to direct costs reflected in healthcare, indirect costs associated with obesity include decreased work productivity, high workers' compensation claims, and lower earnings. Obesity not only costs the individual, but also the employer. The epidemic is associated with lower productivity, costing employers an additional $506 per worker due to an increase in sick days and medical claims. These extra costs are reflected in workers' salaries, as it is estimated that individuals with a BMI of 40 or greater are likely to earn 5% less than their counterparts at a normal weight. Likewise, overweight and obese people are typically minorities and less educated workers who are not afforded the opportunity or do not know how to eat healthy.

The Bottom Line

As one of the three most expensive manmade burdens, obesity continues to negatively affect the health of billions of individuals worldwide. The damage and costs associated with obesity consist of increased health care costs, decreased productivity, and premature deaths. As a preventable disease, reforms must be made to address obesity through education, fitness, media, and employers. With rapidly growing obesity rates around the world, confronting the issue must be done soon rather than allowing the costs to become insurmountable.