Tech + Health

05.09.14

Americans Aren’t Getting Fat Alone

The U.S. isn’t the only country with an expanding waistline. A new study shows many European countries are catching up.

Americans aren’t monopolizing excess. A new study from the European Society of Cardiology predicts that rates of obesity will increase in almost all European countries by 2030. Ireland comes in as the most corpulent country, according to the report, with a 47% projected obesity rate for both men and women.

To be fair, everywhere people are expanding. The prevalence of obesity worldwide nearly doubled between 1980 and 2008, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and although the U.S. is still leading the pack with obesity at 34.9%, European countries aren’t lagging far behind with rates at roughly 23% for women and 20% for men.

Presented by Dr. Laura Webber at the EuroPRevent congress in Amsterdam, the study included investigators from the WHO’s Regional Office for Europe. It is based on a statistical modeling study which takes into account all available data on body mass index and obesity/overweight trends in the WHO’s 53 Euro-region countries.

In those countries the study revealed little evidence of any plateau. Even as England’s rate of increase today is less steep than it has been historically, levels continue to rise and will be much higher in 2030 than they were in 1993.

Examining both overweight and obese rates combined, the numbers become even more shocking. The prevalence of overweight and obesity in males is set to reach 75% in the U.K. and 80% in the Czech Republic, Spain, and Poland. In Ireland, the projected rate is a whopping 90% for men and 84% for women.

Considering that’s almost everybody, Dr. Webber’s comment that these results may be underestimates is all the more concerning. She points to the poor data available from many countries contributing to less certain predictions. The study also does not take into account the significant increase in childhood weight and obesity issues across Europe, with one in three 11-year-olds overweight or obese, according to the WHO.

In accounting for disparities in projected levels (the lowest found in Belgium at 44% and the Netherlands at 47%) the authors mention the potential effects of “economic positioning” and “type of market.” Ireland and the U.K., where obesity rates are highest, have unregulated markets similar to the U.S. Giant food companies work collectively to maximize profit-encouraging over-consumption. In areas with more controlled market economies, like The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, and Finland, obesity levels are lower.

However, obesity is a complex disease. “The United Nations has called for a whole-of-society approach to preventing obesity and related diseases,” Dr. Webber said. “Policies that reduce obesity are necessary to avoid premature mortality and prevent economic strain on already overburdened health systems. The WHO has put in place strategies that aim to guide countries towards reducing obesity through the promotion of physical activity and healthy diets.”

In addition, Dr. Webber tells The Daily Beast, she is working on an EU-funded study—EConDA—economics of chronic diseases, which aims to test the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of obesity interventions on future disease burden.