UN: The world is obese

MANILA, Philippines - The world is getting heavier.

According to the United Nations, not only is the world population growing but the growing number of overweight and obese people is also becoming a serious concern.

“Today, half a billion people (12% of the world’s population) are considered obese,” declared Dr Ties Boerma, Director of the Department of Health Statistics and Information Systems at the World Health Organization (WHO) days before a crucial international health assembly.

The latest annual WHO World Health Statistics, considered the most comprehensive publication of global data on health available, also reported an alarming trend: obesity across all regions more than doubled between 1980 and 2008.

The highest recorded obesity levels are in the Americas (about 26% of adults), while the lowest is in the South-East Asia Region (about 3%).

The coordinating authority for health within the United Nations system referred to obesity as "abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health."

'Globesity' figures

Wheng Ituralde, a 38-year old Filipina mother of 4 feared about her health condition after hearing the report. 

"I'm alarmed. Kelangan nang mag-reduce ng weight (I need to reduce my weight)," Itularde said.

Itularde weighs 81.6 kilograms (around 180 pounds) and stands 1.6 meters (around 5-feet-2-inches). Dividing her weight by the square of her height (in metres), Ituralde's body mass index (BMI), a measure of obesity, is almost 32.

People with a BMI equal to or more than 25 is overweight while those with a 30 or more are considered obese.

A limitation of the BMI is that it does not take into account the percentage of body fat. (Click and calculate your BMI)

Using the BMI formula, a 2008 nutrition survey conducted by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology (FNRI-DOST) found that 27 in every 100 Filipino adults are overweight and obese.

Moreover, the prevalence of overweight and obese people in the Philippines has been steadily rising for the past 15 years - from 16.6 % in 1993 to 20.2% in 1998, 24.0% in 2003 and 26.6% in 2008.   

According to the UN report,  women in any part of the world are prone to obesity more than men, exposing them to greater risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Calling it "globesity," the WHO has considered obesity a global epidemic, noting that it is a fast-worsening public health problem across the world. 

Behavioral risk factors

According to the UN report, about 80% of coronary heart disease and cerebrovascular disease (brain dysfunction) are attributed to unhealthy diet and inactivity together with tobacco use and harmful use of alcohol. 

This affirmed the FNRI-DOST survey which also identified poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, alcohol intake and smoking as behavioral risk factors that cause obesity, diabetes, hypertension, abnormal lung function, and abnormal lipid levels in the blood. 

The FNRI-DOST data particularly showed that 3 in every 10 Filipino adults drink alcoholic beverages and that only 7 in 100 Filipino adults vigorously exercise at least 3 to 4 times a week. 

An information technology specialist, Itularde spends most of her time from 8am to 5pm in front of the computer without much activity. 

"Maghapong nakaupo habang ngumunguya sa harap ng computer," Itularde quipped. (I sit in front of the computer all day, mindlessly eating) 

Itularde admitted that her diet is not healthy, saying that she usually consumes a lot of soda and junk food and often drinks alcoholoc beverages.

In September 2011, she was hospitalized due to abdominal pain. Itularde recalled salt crystals formed in her kidney and could have developed into kidney stones if they were not immediately dissolved.

Change in attitude and policy

According to Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO, the report "is further evidence of the dramatic increase in the conditions that trigger heart disease and other chronic illnesses, particularly in low- and middle-income countries."

The UN data also highlighted the worsening problem of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) which currently cause 36 million (63 %) of the estimated 57 million deaths worldwide

According to the FNRI-DOST, "the changing lifestyle of Filipinos may increase chronic degenerative diseases which may be prevented by good nutrition, regular exercise, not smoking and avoiding alcoholic beverages."

Alarmed by the report and her health condition, Itularde felt it's time to embrace a healthier lifestyle. However, health experts noted that it would take a broader social and policy intervention to efficiently address the problem of being overweight and obese.

In an earlier interview with Rappler, Dr Tony Dans of the Philippine General Hospital said, "We cannot tell people to stop smoking if tobacco is cheap. We cannot tell them to exercise if there is no place to exercise. And we cannot tell them to eat healthy if healthy food is expensive. So all of society must get involved in this action."

Healthy lifestyles and NCDs are on top of the agenda of the 65th session of the World Health Assembly to be convened in Geneva, Switzerland from May 21 to 26. 

During the meeting, the WHO will take stock of the progress on efforts to prevent and control NCDs, now considered in the international community as a major health challenge of the 21st century -- Rappler.com