A new bodyweight study from The Lancet says (surprise!) the number of overweight and obese people has risen drastically since 1980 and it’s time for (surprise!) “urgent global action” that includes addressing (surprise!) “active promotion of food consumption by industry.” The refrain is as predictable as the sunrise.
But let’s put aside technical determinants of weight for a moment. The key finding of this study, which the media is gleeful to report, that the number of people who are obese or overweight has risen from 875 million in 1980 to 2.1 billion today. But what exactly does that mean?
In truth, not much.
The global population in 1980 was only 4.4 billion, or 61 percent of the 7.2 billion today. When you adjust for this population growth, the increase in the number of people who are overweight or obese falls by nearly half. Much less scary. And mere overweightness is not necessarily a good indicator of health risks, with studies indicating that the chubby might live longer than the rail-thin.
And potentially not even a story at all. The study also overlooks the incredible reduction in the number of underweight—starving—people over this period. The WHO estimates that the rate of underweight and stunted children has fallen by 35 percent since 1990. This parallels the food security brought to hundreds of millions of malnourished people in China and India alone over this period as their economies liberalized.
More people on the planet and more food to eat may mean more overweight people. Hardly a groundbreaking study worthy of breathless headlines.