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Obesity: The World's Gravest Health Threat

March 6 2024

Commentary by Dr. Donald Greig

Over the past week, numerous news articles have brought attention to the alarming global obesity crisis, which now affects over 1 billion individuals. These reports have highlighted the vast and far-reaching implications of this health epidemic. This surge in obesity-related content comes in the wake of my commentary from two days ago, where I examined the Atlantic diet—known for its health benefits and potential to combat obesity.

Obesity is not just a personal health issue, but rather a complex problem with social, economic, and environmental dimensions. It is linked to a myriad of health problems. The economic burden is also significant, with higher healthcare costs for treating obesity-related conditions, and reduced productivity due to illness.

The news articles underscore the urgency for a global response to reshape public health policies, encourage dietary shifts, and promote exercise and active lifestyles. The Atlantic diet, rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats (especially from seafood), offers a blueprint for nutritious eating. Traditional diets like these can be part of broader strategies to prevent obesity, alongside actions such as regulating junk food marketing, designing better urban spaces for physical activity, and ensuring equitable access to healthy foods.

Drawing on insights from the Atlantic diet, which is associated with lower rates of obesity and chronic diseases, demonstrates the power of dietary choices to influence health outcomes. The challenge lies in translating this knowledge into actionable policies and accessible programs that can steer the global population towards healthier lifestyles and, ultimately, reverse the tide of the obesity crisis.

For decades, hunger has been considered one of the most devastating public health issues worldwide. However, statistics show that obesity has now eclipsed hunger as the leading nutritional challenge on a global scale. 

While tens of millions (550 million)  still suffer from undernourishment and not getting enough to eat, over 1 billion people around the world are now considered obese according to the latest data. The sheer magnitude of this obesity epidemic dwarfs that of clinical hunger affecting populations. Between 1990 and 2022, the obesity rate globally has more than doubled in women, nearly tripled in men and more than quadrupled in girls and boys.   

There is little doubt that rising obesity rates are a ‘ticking health time bomb’ which should serve as a powerful metaphorical warning. This implies a sense of urgency and impending danger regarding the escalating prevalence of obesity worldwide. While the explosion has yet to occur and even that is debatable, the increasing rates of obesity could eventually lead to widespread health catastrophes if left unaddressed. This public health crisis has the potential to overwhelm healthcare systems, lead to a surge in chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers which are some of the top causes of preventable death. The global obesity crisis  will reduce overall life expectancy and quality of life for a significant portion of the global population. Its effects are lifelong and often terminal if not properly managed. On the other hand, acute hunger is a temporary state that does not guarantee lifelong poor health outcomes.

The costs of treating obesity and its related diseases have skyrocketed. Worldwide obesity-related healthcare costs now exceed $2 trillion annually - more than many countries' entire economic outputs. This financial burden threatens to overwhelm national health budgets and cripple economies. 

We are in the midst of a "globesity" crisis fuelled by abundant high-calorie foods and increasingly sedentary lifestyles now normal in both developed and developing nations. Unlimited unhealthy options combined with tech-heavy lives have created an "obesogenic environment" difficult to resist without conscious effort. 

Research from a prominent UK university has discovered that the world's ten leading food manufacturers generate over two-thirds of their British sales from unhealthy products, indicating a heavy reliance on profiting from junk food consumption. Despite claims by these companies to be part of the solution to health issues, the reality is starkly different. The Bite Back study reveals that their business models are predominantly centred on aggressively marketing unhealthy foods to children, undermining their public health commitments. The study reveals that 70% of global food giants, such as Ferrero and Mondelez, employ packaging strategies for unhealthy foods that seem specifically aimed at attracting children. These tactics include the use of cartoon characters and product shapes resembling toys on their packaging. Activists have latched onto the findings of this research, urging the top ten global food producers to place the public's health above their profit margins.

It's clear that obesity poses a far graver security risk to global health than hunger given its enormous prevalence, consequences, and costs. Urgent multisector cooperation is needed to reverse this trend and spare populations from its gruelling impacts. The health of the world is now at stake unless obesity is tackled head-on with the highest priority,


Indeed, the call to action is urgent. We need comprehensive and effective strategies to prevent the rise of obesity and to lessen its detrimental impacts on health. This would likely involve cross-sector collaboration, policy changes, educational campaigns, and community-based programs, all aimed at promoting healthier lifestyles, improving access to nutritious food, increasing physical activity, and providing support for behavioural change. If these measures are not implemented swiftly and effectively, we risk facing a more severe public health crisis in the near future as the consequences of unchecked obesity rates become ever more pronounced.

If you or anyone you need need a consultation, please make an appointment with Dr. Greig at Hong Kong Surgical Specialists.

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