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Every nation on Earth is getting fatter. Forty percent of adults on the planet are already overweight or obese and more are joining their ranks every day. While the world’s bulging waistlines are driven by economic success — wealthy populations eat more — obesity’s estimated cost of $2 trillion a year worldwide is now almost as much of a financial burden as smoking.

The Situation

Much of the energy in the fight against fat is focused on sugar right now. In October 2016, the World Health Organization urged all nations to consider a tax on sugary drinks. Mexico, Norway and the U.K. have already done so. In the U.S., the cities of San FranciscoPhiladelphia, and Boulder, Colorado, have passed soda taxes. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will require new food labels by July 2018 that will differentiate between naturally occurring sugar, as in raisins, and sugar that’s added. Companies are feeling the pressure: PepsiCo says that it will cut back on added sugar in its beverages. Whether sugar is the prime culprit or not, the effect of decades of weight gain is being felt worldwide: There were 114 countries where more than half the adult population was overweight in 2014, including much of the Americas, Europe and the Middle East. In the U.S., the average American woman now weighs 166 pounds, about equal to what the average American man weighed in the 1960s. In China, one-fifth of all children are overweight. In Mexico, more than 70 percent of adults are overweight. Researchers estimate that excess weight caused 3.4 million premature deaths worldwide in 2010. Not surprisingly, rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease are on the rise. An estimated 422 million adults had diabetes in 2014, a rate of about 8.5 percent, compared with 4.7 percent in 1980.

Humans Are Getting Heavier - Percentage of people worldwide who are overweight (body mass index of 25 or more) and obese (BMI 30+)

The Background

The rise of obesity coincided with the expansion of food supplies and easy access to processed food. In many countries, the amount of food is more than sufficient to provide the energy people need. While it’s tough to estimate how much people eat, the number of calories available for consumption has risen steadily over the past 50 years. At the same time, many people are less physically active than their ancestors were. Working in farm fields or on factory floors once meant exercise was built into the daily schedule. Now, machines increasingly do work that once fell to people. In the U.S., many Americans spend their working hours chained to their desks and eat fewer and fewer of their meals at home. A lack of exercise and calorie-heavy diets loaded with sugar, fat and salt has led to bulging waistlines, and more: Studies show obesity significantly increases the risk of developing depression. 

The Argument

Employers in the U.S. recognize the cost of obesity to their health-care budgets and have rushed to offer wellness programs intended to help workers get fit. Yet most scientific research says that eating less is the best way to drop pounds. Coca-Cola was criticized when it was revealed in 2015 that the company was funding research in the U.S. to emphasize exercise, rather than calorie cutting, as the key to weight loss. McDonald’s and other fast-food chains have long been in the crosshairs of activists who argue their food is making us fat. The United Nations has called for a global effort to end the rise in obesity by 2025. While researchers say the chances of meeting that target are virtually zero, there have been some successes in reducing childhood obesity in the U.K. and U.S. through education and efforts to limit sugar and fat in school meals and snacks. Some critics of public programs argue that governments shouldn’t decide what we can and can’t eat or drink, that individuals should take personal responsibility for something as basic as that.

Reference Shelf

  • Calculate your body mass index here
  • The Center for Science in the Public Interest argues for a U.S. tax on the sugar in soda and other drinks.
  • The National Bureau of Economic Research found that a soda tax in Berkeley, California, was not passed on to customers.
  • The Cato Institute says food and soda taxes are ineffective.
  • Guardian article: “How one of the most obese countries on earth took on the soda giants.”
  • New York Times Magazine article: “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.”
  • Bloomberg graphics report: "The World Is Getting Fatter and No One Knows How to Stop it."
  • Bloomberg QuickTake on government nutritional guidelines.


    First published June 10, 2016

    To contact the writers of this QuickTake:
    John Tozzi in New York at jtozzi2@bloomberg.net
    Craig Giammona in New York at cgiammona@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
    Anne Cronin at acronin14@bloomberg.net

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