14 Dec 2012

Obesity replaces malnutrition as killer

10:01 pm on 14 December 2012

One of the largest global health studies ever conducted has found that - for the first time - more people are being killed by obesity than by not having enough to eat.

The research assessed the causes of death in 2010 and compared these to data collected 20 years earlier when lack of nutrition was the main cause of illness.

The Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 underpins seven scientific papers published in The Lancet medical journal which provide a new platform for assessing the world's biggest health challenges, and then finding the best ways to address them.

In 1990 infectious disease and childhood illnesses related to malnutrition were the main cause of death among the world's children.

Now children - outside of sub-Saharan Africa - are more likely to live into an unhealthy adulthood and suffer from eating too much food rather than too little.

Once the biggest contributor to the world's health burden was premature mortality - driven by more than 10 million deaths in children under the age of 5.

But now the disease burden is caused mostly by chronic diseases and injuries such as musculoskeletal disorders, mental health conditions, and injuries.

This burden intensifies as more people live longer.

And while the burden of malnutrition has successfully been cut by two-thirds, poor diets and physical inactivity are contributing to rising rates of obesity and other lifestyle-related risk factors, including high blood pressure, tobacco smoking, and harmful alcohol use.

Dietary risk factors and physical inactivity collectively caused 10% of the disease burden, and the burden due to excess weight and high blood sugar are rising substantially.

"We have gone from a world 20 years ago where people weren't getting enough to eat to a world now where too much food and unhealthy food - even in developing countries - is making us sick," said Imperial College London's chair in global environmental health Dr. Majid Ezzati, one of the study's lead authors.