That perfect beach body? Not this year …

You too can have a body like this
You too can have a body like this

Summer is just around the corner, and the newsstands are suddenly covered with magazine covers promising to get you trim and toned for the beach. But, this year, squeezing into the swimsuit will be harder than ever. Why? We’re getting fatter.

Figures released by the OECD earlier this week show that most adults in the developed world are now overweight. More worrying, almost one in five are not just overweight but obese. In the United States, Mexico and New Zealand, that proportion rises to one in three. (If you’re wondering about your own body, you can estimate your Body Mass Index, or BMI, here. Among adults, a BMI of 25 or over means you’re overweight; 30 or over means you’re obese; and 40 or over means you’re severely obese.)

The problem is not just confined to rich countries. Worldwide, not a single developed or developing country has managed to turn the tide on obesity over the past three decades, according to findings from the Global Burden of Disease Study reported this week. Over that period, the proportion of overweight or obese adults worldwide rose about 8 percentage points to just under 37% for men and to 38% for women, and there were also big rises among children and adolescents.

So, the obesity epidemic shows no signs of going away, although there are signs that it’s levelling off in some rich countries. According to the OECD data, obesity rates are stabilising, or growing only very slowly, in around six OECD countries and regions, including the U.S., Spain and Canada. But in others, such as Mexico and Australia, they’re still galloping along.

They also look to be rising among people on the bottom end of the economic ladder, who tend to suffer higher rates of obesity in any case. The Great Recession didn’t help: In a number of countries, there are signs that families cut their spending on food, typically by replacing fresh produce with highly calorific but less nutritious processed foods – goodbye salad, hello cheeseburger.

For a number of reasons, the global rise in obesity is increasingly seen as a serious issue for public health policy. For one thing, obesity – just like cigarettes and alcohol – is a killer. People who are severely obese cut eight to ten years off their lives, while every extra 15 kilograms of weight increases the risk of early death by about 30%.

Another reason is that it’s clear that people don’t have the information they need to make good decisions about food. That’s not too surprising. We live, after all, in a world filled with food designed, quite literally, to make us go on eating – try eating just one Pringles chip, for instance. We are also bombarded by endless, and often contradictory, advice on what and what not to eat. Right now, it seems, sugar is replacing butter as Public Enemy No. 1. Neither, of course, is a “super-food” – a list of comestibles that promises to make us slim, sexy and smart and that now includes everything from blueberries and pomegranates to vinegar, cauliflower and even dandelions.

It’s no wonder people are confused.

Recent years have seen a swathe of policy initiatives to try to tackle the obesity epidemic, and a range of approaches is being taken. One of the most popular – and controversial – involves introducing higher taxes on fatty or sugary foods. Designing these taxes is not easy, however. Denmark, for example, introduced a “fat tax” on foods containing more than 2.3% saturated fat, but rescinded it after not much more than a year amid pressure from retailers, producers and politicians.

Other initiatives include better food labelling. The UK, for example, has introduced a voluntary “traffic-light” system to inform consumers about the levels of salt, sugar and fat in their food. Food advertising is also being targeted in some OECD countries: As part of its ambitious National Strategy on obesity, Mexico has banned TV advertising of potentially harmful foods during hours of the day when children are likely to be watching. Financial and other incentives are also being tried out in some OECD countries to encourage people to lose weight.

Many of these initiatives are fairly recent, so it will take time before their impact becomes clear. No doubt, some will work better than others – indeed, some may not work at all. However, there is good evidence to show that public policy really can have an impact on major health issues. Take smoking – down almost a third in just two decades in rich countries and, with luck, likely to fall still further.

Useful links

OECD Obesity Update

Obesity and the Economics of Prevention – Fit not Fat (OECD, 2010)

OECD work on the economics of prevention

Brian Keeley

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