Is obesity a more significant global health risk than hunger?

A new study published in The Lancet highlights the complex issue of food distribution and consumption
vegetables and treats
Experts argue that the issue is closely related to the accessibility of ultra-processed foods.

The global obesity epidemic is escalating at an alarming rate. A recent study published in The Lancet reveals that over one billion people worldwide were living with obesity in 2022. The prevalence of obesity has more than doubled among adults and quadrupled among children and adolescents since 1990. Additionally, the data indicate that 43% of adults were overweight in 2022. This report suggests that obesity is now viewed as a more significant global health risk than hunger, signalling a paradigm shift in our collective concern towards overweight and obese populations. 

The situation is projected to worsen. According to the World Obesity Federation's 2023 atlas, by 2035, 51% of the global population, amounting to over four billion people, will be classified as obese or overweight. This shift in focus from hunger to obesity indicates that the world is not necessarily running out of food, but rather facing a complex issue of food distribution and consumption. Hunger has always been an issue of unequal distribution, while the rising global obesity risks suggest a more intricate problem.

Canada is not immune to this trend. The obesity rate in our country ranges between 30% to 33% depending on the source, with the overweight rate also exceeding 30% in many reports. Some studies even suggest that our obesity rate is now higher than that of the U.S.

READ: Post-COVID, consumers are taking a more proactive approach to their health

The call to action by The Lancet is a serious one. Experts argue that the issue is closely related to the accessibility of ultra-processed foods. In response, the Trudeau government has implemented several measures since 2015, including new front-of-packaging regulations set to take effect in 2026, which will help consumers identify products high in fat, sugar or sodium. Additionally, Bill C-252, currently in the Canadian Senate, aims to restrict food and beverage marketing directed at children. While it is too early to assess the impact of these measures on the obesity epidemic, they represent a step in the right direction.

However, many experts had high hopes for a significant change with the introduction of the new food guide. Despite being more than 5 years old, the guide has not been able to reverse the trend of increasing obesity rates, while Canada's life expectancy has decreased for three consecutive years, from 82.3 years in 2019 to 81.3 in 2022. Although COVID-19 and other factors have contributed to this decline, obesity is a known risk factor for premature mortality and increased medical needs throughout life.

The complexity of obesity as an issue is evident. Factors such as poverty, education, access to healthcare, and lifestyle all play a role in determining an individual's risk. One emerging trend is the increasing use of GLP-1 drugs like Ozempic, originally designed for diabetes management, for non-medical weight loss purposes in the Western world. The impact of obesity on COVID-19 mortality rates has also brought attention to these drugs as potential solutions for weight loss.

READ: Weighing the threat of Ozempic on snack sales 

The recent departure of Oprah Winfrey from the WeightWatchers board, coupled with her admission of using a GLP-1 drug, led to a 20% drop in the company's shares. This news, along with the decreasing shares of snack food companies like MondelēzPepsiCo and Nestlé, indicates a growing concern in the industry about the impact of these drugs on consumer behaviour. With projections suggesting that nearly 25 million Americans will be using these drugs by 2032, the industry is closely monitoring the situation. In Canada, while official numbers are not available, there was a shortage of Ozempic for a while, highlighting the growing demand.

Policy decisions will undoubtedly influence the demand for these novel drugs. The new Pharmacare bill introduced in parliament this week did not include these drugs, but it will be interesting to see whether governments will view them as a solution to the obesity problem.

Our current approach to addressing obesity is not yielding the desired results. However, as with many other health challenges, the solution may once again emerge from Big Pharma.

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