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D.iet & H.ealth : B.ody W.eight Last Updated: Nov 12th, 2006 - 20:38:00

Experts: Obesity a Global Scourge
By Kathy Jones
Sep 4, 2006, 11:32

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Obesity is on the verge of crippling the health system in every country by causing lifestyle diseases like diabetes and heart disease, experts warned Sunday at the International Congress on Obesity in Sydney.

The high rates of obesity will increase risk of associated diseases and shorten lives, experts said. Countries could lose a lot in terms of productivity and the health care systems may not withstand this burden, experts said at the opening of the Obesity conference.

More than 2,500 delegates have arrived in Sydney for the International Congress on Obesity and will discuss strategies to tackle this looming crisis.

Prof Paul Zimmet, chairman of the meeting called obesity an international scourge. "This insidious, creeping pandemic of obesity is now engulfing the entire world. It's as big a threat as global warming and bird flu," said Zimmet, an Australian diabetes expert.

The cost of treating obesity-related diseases was also referred to at the meeting. Prof Philip James, chairman of a global task force set up by medical organizations that deal with weight-related problems said the cost of treating such problems like diabetes and heart disease runs into billions of dollars in developed countries like Australia, Britain and the United States.

"We are not dealing with a scientific or medical problem. We're dealing with an enormous economic problem that, it is already accepted, is going to overwhelm every medical system in the world," James said.

Governments have become aware of the rising rates of obesity as obesity has started undermining the established health care systems worldwide.

Another issue confronting experts is childhood obesity. Incidence of overweight and obesity worldwide is getting so out of control that the World Health Organization says it's nothing short of a global pandemic.

British psychologist Professor Andrew Hill said that new research showed that obese 11-year-olds are four times more likely than their normal weight counterparts to have a poor image about themselves.

"Those already overweight or obese need immediate and expert help to reduce their overweight," he said. "The weight-hostile environment in which children grow up is potentially toxic for their self-regard and psychological well-being."

Conference co-chairman Professor Ian Caterson agreed that obesity was not all about hogging food in an uncontrolled manner. "We know this is not about gluttony. It is the interaction of heredity and environment," he said.

There are at least 1 billion adults around the world who can be classified as overweight and 300 million of them are obese, the WHO said. This means there are now more overweight people in the world than people who are undernourished. Zimmet said this figure is about 600 million.

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that a 5-foot-10-inch adult of either sex is classed as overweight if he/she crosses 174 pounds and obese at 209 pounds. Obesity is measured as a function of body mass index, or BMI, a ratio calculated using weight and height. A person with a BMI higher than 30 is generally considered obese.

The percentage of Americans who are overweight or obese has been on a steady rise over the last 25 years. Sedentary lifestyle practices are believed to be the main reason behind this problem, which has been termed as an epidemic by the World Health Organization.

Obesity brings with it a lot of associated problems like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that being obese in midlife increased the risk of dying early by 4o to 50 percent.

Experts at the conference also said governments should impose bans on junk food advertising aimed directly at children. Such a move is already being enforced in UK. However experts also admitted that the huge presence of food industry might not allow these bans to come into effect.

"There is going to be a political bun fight over this for some time, but of course we shouldn't advertise junk food to children that makes them fat," said Prof. Boyd Swinburn, a member of an international task force on combating obesity.

Caterson elaborated on the theme of the conference and said that it would treat obesity as the keystone of all health priorities because it is the single greatest contributor to chronic disease throughout the world.

"There are now more overweight people in the world than undernourished and we are seeing the double burden of the extremes of malnutrition, undernutrition and overnutrition, in many developing countries," he added.

Experts say that simply focusing on diet and exercise will not solve the issue. Nations must address the problem by shifting policies on urban and social planning, agriculture, education, transport and other areas, the experts said.

Around 400 research papers on obesity are expected to be presented at the conference, which ends on Friday.

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