A new study reveals that one in three people worldwide is now either obese or overweight, with the greatest weight gainers found in the Middle East, and no country has reduced obesity rates in more than three decades.

Excess weight has been linked to metabolic effects on blood pressure, cholesterol, insulin resistance and the development of cancer, and the World Health Organization estimates that 2.8 million people die every year as a result of being overweight (body mass index or BMI of 25 and above), or obese (BMI of 30 and above), and from fatal conditions associated with packing on the pounds.

In an ominous sign of a huge spike in cases of diabetes, strokes and heart attacks worldwide, new data recently revealed that 2.1 billion people - roughly 30% of the global population - are now considered either overweight or obese.

Moreover, not a single country in the last three decades has lowered or reversed the trend of rising obesity rates despite efforts, according to the study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington.

Published recently in The Lancet, the study entitled “Global, regional, and national prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adults during 1980–2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013” said that the number of overweight and obese people worldwide jumped from 857 million in 1980 to 2.1 billion in 2013.

During the same period, the prevalence of overweight or obese children and adolescents have nearly doubled, with developed countries posting the fastest rate of obesity among younger ages.

Men had higher rates of obesity in developed countries, while women in developing nations posted higher rates, according to the study.  

Globally, the United States has the highest proportion of obese persons at 13%, while China and India together has 15% of the obese population.

“Obesity is an issue affecting people of all ages and incomes, everywhere,”

Dr. Christopher Murray, director of IHME and co-founder of the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study, said in a statement.

“In the last three decades, not one country has achieved success in reducing obesity rates, and we expect obesity to rise steadily as incomes rise in low- and middle-income countries in particular, unless urgent steps are taken to address this public health crisis.”

The study showed that in 2013, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region registered the highest rate of obesity worldwide, with 58% of men and 65% of women age 20 and older classified as either overweight or obese.

More than two-thirds of the countries in MENA posted overweight and obesity prevalence rates of more than 50% for both men and women.

The countries in the region which have gained the most weight in the past three decades were Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait.

The study also noted that MENA has one of the highest rates of child and adolescent obesity in the world, particularly among girls.

In absolute numbers, there are now 79 million obese people and 180 million overweight people living in the MENA region. 

An earlier report by a UK think tank Overseas Development Institute (ODI) mirrored the findings of the more recent IHME report. ODI reported that MENA and Latin America had the same high rates of obesity as that of Europe at around 58%.

Globally, the U.S. still has the highest percentage of overweight adults at 70%, according to that survey. 

Rising incomes and changing lifestyles have been linked to a corresponding rise in obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in the Middle East.

Countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are leading the region in applying digital health technologies and strategies to combat the growing epidemic of lifestyle-related chronic diseases.

In the UAE, where a report says that half the population would become obese by the end of 2016, health authorities have implemented unique incentive schemes to convince residents to shed some weight. For instance, the Dubai Health Authority in 2013 offered Dubai residents one gram of gold for every kilogram of weight shed in a month.

For longer term solutions, health authorities are implementing screening and information campaigns, boosting healthcare infrastructure, training medical personnel, and tapping new technologies to stem the tide of chronic conditions.

For example, digital health has the potential to help reverse the alarming trend of rising obesity and lifestyle diseases by:

  • Bringing down healthcare costs
  • Making information readily available
  • Causing behavioral change in people to help them make healthy decisions.