Globesity and Its Numbers

Statisticians know that everything comes with a plus-or-minus allowance. The smart ones realize that their profession is like that of an old-time shade-tree mechanic tinkering with an engine, who says, “The fewer moving parts, the less can go wrong.”

Obesity is nothing but moving parts. Sure, people can be corralled into pigeonholes, intermittently. They’re either diabetic or pre-diabetic, and so on. But the dismaying thing about obesity is, there are few one-size-fits-all preventatives or remedies. The rules with universal application really stand out, like, “Stop drinking sugar-sweetened beverages.” On the other hand, it’s likely that a specimen or two could be found of superbly healthy people who guzzle fizzy soft drinks all day long.

One size does not fit all

The bottom line is, people’s bodies are different and their minds are different. This is why so many obstacles stand in the path of researchers who try to locate bedrock insight so that policy may be constructed. A whole separate but related set of problems involves any attempt to make sense of a phenomenon with only about, approximately, several hundred variables or thereabouts.

Longitudinal studies have their uses, but, inevitably, technology and communications improve, and soon the present-day studies become less possible to align with past studies in a meaningful way. It is clear that even the most erudite scientists are floundering. We see how hard it is to keep track of what goes on here in the United States, one of the world’s most advanced countries.

The problems that researchers have to cope with in less-developed countries are easily imagined. The net result is that all these numbers are guesstimates based on local conditions and procedures, and possibly even some political considerations.

The latest WHO report

In January, the World Health Organization announced that worldwide, 41 million children under age five are overweight or obese. Just in case that number didn’t register the first time, it applies only to overweight and obese kids younger than five years old. WHO is concentrating on the youngest age group because of the huge importance of both prevention and early intervention.

Jason Best reminds us that many people tend to think of obesity as a first-world problem resulting from “poor lifestyle choices and a contemptible lack of self-control,” and corrects this misapprehension:

But in its report, the WHO’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity deftly dispels those myths. Noting that nearly half the world’s overweight or obese children under the age of five live in Africa, while a quarter live in Asia, the report states that “in absolute numbers there are more children who are overweight and obese in low- and middle-income countries than in high-income countries.”

Peter Gluckman, cochair of the Commission, told the press that, in the developing world, childhood obesity is “an exploding nightmare.” The entire world has become an obesogenic environment fraught with risk factors — the hundreds of variables mentioned above. Sugar-sweetened beverages come in for heavy blame, and policy recommendations reflect that.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (funded by an eclectic crew of philanthropists and governments) produces the annual Global Nutrition Report. The current year’s report reminded news consumers that that obesity is not the only problem:

According to the report, malnutrition is responsible for nearly half of all deaths of children under five worldwide and, together with poor diets, is the number one driver of disease.

At least 57 countries have a double burden of serious levels of under nutrition — including stunting and anemia — as well as rising numbers of adults who are overweight or obese, putting a massive strain on sometimes already fragile health systems.

One of the most heartbreaking facts to emerge from these studies, as in previous years, is that many children and adults are both overweight/obese and undernourished.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “No, it’s not just U.S.: Childhood obesity an ‘exploding nightmare’ in developing countries,”, 01/27/16
Source: “Too fat, too thin: Report finds malnutrition fuels disease worldwide,”, 06/13/16
Photo credit: gruniek via VisualHunt/CC BY.

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