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Worldwide time trends in body mass index since 1980

A comment by Dirk de Bacquer, EACPR Prevention Epidemiology and Population Science Section


During recent years, evidence of an escalating global epidemic of overweight and obesity - “globesity” - is rapidly accumulating. Health consequences may range from increased risk of premature death to serious chronic conditions that drastically reduce quality of life.

In a recent paper published in The Lancet on behalf of the “Global Burden of Metabolic Risk Factors of Chronic Diseases Collaborating Group”, Finucane, Stevens et al. report their results of a huge systematic analysis of observational data from published as well as unpublished health examination surveys and epidemiological studies with the aim of establishing recent worldwide trends in the distribution of body mass index (BMI). High-quality population-based data on adult men and women from 199 countries and territories were used to feed a Bayesian hierarchical model providing robust estimates.

Between 1980 and 2008, mean BMI worldwide had increased by 0.4 kg/m² per decade for men and 0.5 kg/m² for women. Although rather substantial differences were seen across regions and sexes, unfavourable trends were observed in nearly all regions with BMI rise largest in Oceania in both sexes. The regions with almost flat trends or even potential decreases were central and eastern Europe for women, and central Africa and South Asia for men. Worldwide, age-standardised prevalence of obesity was 9.8% in men and 13.8% in women in 2008, which was nearly twice the 1980 prevalence. An estimated 1.46 billion adult men and women had a BMI higher than 25 kg/m² representing an age-standardised prevalence of 34.3%. The US had the highest BMI levels of high-income countries with the obesity prevalence in North American men being as high as 29.2%.

These convincing findings need wide recognition as they bring ultimate evidence to policy makers for taking rigorous action. These results stress the importance of considering structural, regulatory and economic interventions to address this most important risk factor before millions of more people worldwide suffer from serious health disorders.