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England confronts 'globesity'

Obesity levels in England could reach those of the US within a decade, according to a new British study.

By Lucian Kim Special to The Christian Science Monitor / February 23, 2001



LONDON -

Levels of obesity in England have tripled in the past 20 years, with 1 in 5 adults here now seriously overweight, according to a study released last week by the National Audit Office.

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England is just one example, experts here say, of how the conveniences of modern technology, coupled with increasingly sedentary lifestyles, have tipped the scales toward a society where overweight people are in the majority.

One-third of the people living in the wealthy European Union are overweight, and experts have warned that half of adult Europeans could be obese within a generation. By comparison, one-quarter of the US population is obese.

"Never in the history of humanity have we had so much food to eat," says Neville Rigby of the International Obesity Taskforce in London. "A cornucopia around the clock: This kind of environment of plenty was unheard of several generations ago in most parts of world."

Experts agree that any strategy to combat obesity will need to be as varied as the causes, but will need to focus on nutrition education, increased physical activity, and improving medical understanding of obesity causes and treatments. The experts urge launching awareness campaigns - not unlike the movement that began 30 years ago to sound alarm bells about the dangers of smoking.

Costly consequences

The report estimated that obesity cost England $4 billion in treating related health problems, which the study said include diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

In the US, the prevalence of diabetes has increased by more than 32 percent between 1990 and 1998, according to a report published last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Experts have been warning about the "silent epidemic" of obesity and the health risks it poses for some time.

In many regions, people still struggle to fill their plates, but the problem of obesity is by no means limited to rich developed countries. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of obese adults worldwide has increased by 50 percent since 1995, to 300 million last year. One-third of these people are believed to live in the developing world.

In 1996, WHO set up a global database on obesity and body mass index, the common measure of fatness. WHO calls obesity "one of today's most blatantly visible - yet most neglected - public health problems," and has dubbed the global epidemic "globesity."

Together with the University of Auckland in New Zealand, WHO is studying the impact of globalization on nutrition, as well as the varied factors that lead to obesity.

Experts agree that obesity results from a number of causes, many of which are related to advances in technology.

"The increase in sedentary lifestyles comes before eating patterns," says Rob Prideaux, principal author of the England study.

Fifty years ago people were much more physically active both at the workplace and at home; labor-saving devices, individualized transport, and hours before TVs have had their price in extra inches on the waistline.