The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that obesity is increasing around the globe, with one out of eight now at risk for further health complications from being overweight. 

WHO issued a press release on March 1, 2024. The warning from WHO cited findings from a study published by the Lancet. The research revealed that as of 2022, the global population living with obesity had surpassed 1 billion. 

The prevalence of obesity in adults has seen a significant rise, more than doubling since 1990. Furthermore, there has been a four-fold increase in the obesity rates among children and adolescents aged between 5 to 19 years. Additionally, in 2022, 43% of adults were identified as overweight.

Key Findings in the Lancet Study on Obesity

Here are some other key findings that the WHO shared from the Lancet study:

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  • In 2022, 1 in 8 people in the world had obesity. 
  • Around the globe, adult obesity has more than doubled since 1990. Further, adolescent obesity has quadrupled.
  • In 2022, 2.5 billion adults (aged 18 years and older) were overweight. Of these, 890 million lived with obesity.
  • In 2022, 43% of adults aged 18 years and over were overweight, as mentioned earlier. Of those people, 16% were living with obesity.
  • In 2022, 37 million children under the age of 5 were overweight.
  • Over 390 million children and adolescents aged 5–19 years were overweight in 2022. That number included 160 million who were living with obesity.

Adults: Understanding Overweight and Obesity Criteria

In the context of adults, the World Health Organization categorizes overweight and obesity based on Body Mass Index (BMI) as follows:

  • Being overweight is identified when one’s BMI is 25 or higher.
  • Obesity is classified when BMI reaches 30 or above.
  • It’s important to note that these criteria are independent of age for adults.

Young Children Healthy Weight Guidelines (Under 5 Years)

For young children under the age of five years, the parameters for overweight and obesity are measured differently:

  • Overweight in this age group is determined when weight-for-height exceeds two standard deviations over the WHO Child Growth Standards median.
  • Obesity is defined as weight-for-height surpassing three standard deviations over the WHO Child Growth Standards median.

Children and Adolescents Healthy Weight Guidelines (Aged 5–19 Years)

The criteria for overweight and obesity in children aged between 5–19 years are as follows:

  • Overweight is when the BMI for age exceeds one standard deviation above the WHO Growth Reference median.
  • Obesity is identified when the BMI for age is over two standard deviations over WHO’s Growth Reference median.

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WHO Director Explains the Interventions Needed

The World Health Organization (WHO) played a key role in gathering and analyzing data for this study, accessible via the Global Health Observatory.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General, emphasized the significance of taking the following actions to stop address the growing problem of obesity:

“This new study highlights the importance of preventing and managing obesity from early life to adulthood through diet, physical activity, and adequate care, as needed. Getting back on track to meet the global targets for curbing obesity will take the work of governments and communities, supported by evidence-based policies from WHO and national public health agencies. Importantly, it requires the cooperation of the private sector, which must be accountable for the health impacts of their products.”

The WHO Acceleration Plan to Address Obesity

Obesity, a complex chronic condition, has well-understood causes and evidence-based interventions available to address the issue. Despite this knowledge, these interventions often remain unimplemented. At the 2022 World Health Assembly, member nations endorsed the WHO Acceleration Plan to address obesity, aiming to guide actions at the national level through 2030. Currently, 31 countries are implementing this plan to combat the obesity crisis.

Key interventions in the WHO plan include the following measures:

  1. Initiatives to promote healthy practices from infancy, such as breastfeeding promotion and support.
  2. Regulations should be made to restrict the harmful marketing of food and beverages to children.
  3. Implement school food and nutrition policies, including controlling the sale of products high in fats, sugars, and salt in or near schools.
  4. Fiscal and pricing strategies to encourage healthier diets.
  5. Policies for nutrition labeling: these food labels can empower consumers to make better choices.
  6. Public education and campaigns promoting healthy diets and exercise.
  7. Standards for physical activity in educational institutions.
  8. Integration of obesity prevention and management services into primary healthcare.

Dr. Francesco Branca, Director of WHO’s Nutrition and Food Safety Department and a study co-author, highlighted the substantial challenges in implementing policies that provide affordable access to healthy diets and create environments conducive to physical activity and overall healthy living:

“There are significant challenges in implementing policies aimed at ensuring affordable access to healthy diets for all and creating environments that promote physical activity and overall healthy lifestyles for everyone. Countries should also ensure that health systems integrate the prevention and management of obesity into the basic package of services.”

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Final Thoughts on the WHO Health Warning About Better Weight Management Strategies

This health warning from WHO does not have any malicious intent. Nor does it mean to shame anyone. Instead, they likely share this information as a wake-up call that much work is needed to fight obesity around the world – the sooner, the better. It’s not a matter of how someone looks but the connections between weight and long-term and chronic disease. We all know that being too heavy can cause joint pain, diabetes, certain cancers, and other diseases. It can also lead to health crises, such as a stroke or a heart attack.

Taking measures to reduce the number of obese people will lead to healthier societies. But perhaps more importantly, shedding those extra pounds can also help these individuals enjoy a better quality of life – and maybe spend a longer life with their loved ones.