As countries grow economically and per capita incomes rise, the devastating impacts and burden of obesity will continue to shift toward the poor, warns Dr Meera Shekar
The World Bank has projected that impacts of obesity will cost developing countries $7 trillion in the next 15 years by lowering their productivity and life expectancy as well as raising disability and healthcare costs.
In a report titled "Obesity: Health and Economic Consequences of An Impending Global Challenge", it stated obesity-related non-communicable diseases are now one of the top three killers of humans in every region of the world, except Sub-Saharan Africa.
The World Bank released the report earlier this month.
Basically, overweight or obesity is a medical condition that occurs when excess energy is stored in fat cells, which may have negative effects on human health.
In the past, people used to believe obesity was the problem for high-income countries only. But relevant data show over 70 percent of the world's two billion overweight and obese individuals live in low- or middle-income countries and 55 percent of the global rise in obesity is found in rural areas.
The World Bank report shows that worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975, and now it accounts for four million global deaths annually.
"As countries grow economically and per capita incomes rise, the devastating impacts and burden of obesity will continue to shift toward the poor," said Dr Meera Shekar, who co-authored the report with Dr Barry Popkin from the University of North Carolina.
Dr Meera Shekar is Global Lead for nutrition with the World Bank's Health, Nutrition and Population Global Practice.
Bangladesh has moderate level of double burden
Meanwhile, most of the countries globally are also suffering from what is referred to as the "double burden of malnutrition" – high child stunting and increasing obesity rates. It is also compromising their human capital.
The report reflects the prevalence of a moderate level of double burden in Bangladesh with obesity among 23 percent of women and stunting in over 36 percent of children under five.
In South Asia, Bangladesh is accompanied by Afghanistan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka to experience the same two problems of malnutrition. But Bhutan, the Maldives and Pakistan are suffering a high level of it.
The epidemic of obesity can be fuelled mainly by three factors: consuming ultra-processed and sugary food, inadequate physical activity, and higher incomes, which often go hand-in-hand with a higher consumption of unhealthy food, according to the World Bank report.
Market failure due to obesity
The study also mentions economic implications of overweight and obesity, saying it may cause troubles for markets to function efficiently.
According to the study, market failure can be triggered by externalities, asymmetric or imperfect information, market power and a shortage of public goods such as healthcare.
Externality arises when too much medical care costs for treating overweight and obesity increase insurance expenses for normal-weight individuals.
The existence of asymmetric or imperfect information is an important concern of health economics. The report says imperfect information in terms of obesity is a concern in food consumption.
Because, producers then have more detailed information than consumers do about the nutrient content and often use deceptive marketing to incorrectly inform consumers.
According to the report, when a single or a few firms dominate the market by increasing the commodity prices, it may drive the overweight or obese people to consume cheap unhealthy food.
Why obesity is an issue
In the present world, global attention to obesity which is popularly known as overweight has recently burgeoned.
The case of obesity is increasing in most low- and middle-income countries. Its impacts on productivity and economic development are huge in terms of increased healthcare costs, reduced productivity, disability, early retirement and life expectancy.
What should be done?
Recent reports by two Lancet commissions suggest that changing diets and food systems are key to addressing the growing challenges of climate change as well as child stunting and under-nutrition.
To avoid the risk of obesity, governments and development partners must adopt a comprehensive approach, recommends the report.
The approach should include increasing consumer education, mandatory labelling of processed food, reducing salt and sugar-sweetened beverages and investing in early childhood nutrition programmes, it reads.
The report also highlights the importance of strong fiscal policies such as taxation of unhealthy food, enhancing urban design including playgrounds in schools, and separate paths for walking and bicycle.