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Obesity is becoming a greater health concern than hunger

Sylvain CharleboisThe global obesity epidemic is escalating at an alarming rate. According to a recent study in The Lancet, the number of people living with obesity surpassed one billion globally in 2022. Since 1990, obesity rates have more than doubled in adults and quadrupled in children and adolescents.

Moreover, the data indicate that 43 percent of adults were overweight in 2022. This report suggests that obesity is now recognized as a greater global health concern than hunger, signalling a paradigm shift in our collective concern toward overweight and obese populations.

The situation is projected to worsen. According to the World Obesity Federation’s 2023 atlas, 51 percent of the global population, amounting to over four billion people, will be classified as obese or overweight by 2035. This shift in focus from hunger to obesity indicates that the world is not necessarily running out of food but is rather facing a complex issue of food distribution and consumption. Hunger has always been an issue of unequal distribution, while the rising global obesity risks suggest a more intricate problem.

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Canada is not immune to this trend. The obesity rate in our country ranges between 30 and 33 percent depending on the source, with the overweight rate also exceeding 30 percent in many reports. Some studies even suggest that our obesity rate is now higher than that of the U.S.

The call to action by The Lancet is a serious one. Experts argue that the issue is closely related to the accessibility of ultra-processed foods. In response, the Trudeau government has implemented several measures since 2015, including new front-of-packaging regulations set to take effect in 2026, which will help consumers identify products high in fat, sugar, or sodium. Additionally, Bill C-252, currently in the Canadian Senate, aims to restrict food and beverage marketing directed at children. While it is too early to assess the impact of these measures on the obesity epidemic, they represent a step in the right direction.

However, many experts had high hopes for a significant change with the introduction of the new food guide. Despite being over five years old, the guide has not been able to reverse the trend of increasing obesity rates, while Canada’s life expectancy has decreased for three consecutive years, from 82.3 years in 2019 to 81.3 in 2022. Although COVID-19 and other factors have contributed to this decline, obesity is a known risk factor for premature mortality and increased medical needs throughout life.

The complexity of obesity as an issue is evident. Factors such as poverty, education, access to healthcare, and lifestyle all play a role in determining an individual’s risk. One emerging trend is the increasing use of GLP-1 drugs like Ozempic, originally designed for diabetes management, for non-medical weight loss purposes in the Western world. The impact of obesity on COVID-19 mortality rates has also brought attention to these drugs as potential solutions for weight loss.

The recent departure of Oprah Winfrey from the WeightWatchers board, coupled with her admission of using a GLP-1 drug, led to a 20 percent drop in the company’s shares. This news, along with the decreasing shares of snack food companies like Mondelez, PepsiCo, and Nestle, indicates a growing concern in the industry about the impact of these drugs on consumer behaviour.

With projections suggesting that nearly 25 million Americans will be using these drugs by 2032, the industry is closely monitoring the situation. While official numbers are unavailable in Canada, there was a shortage of Ozempic for a while, highlighting the growing demand.

Policy decisions will undoubtedly influence the demand for these novel drugs. The new Pharmacare bill introduced in Parliament this week did not include these drugs, but it will be interesting to see whether governments will view them as a solution to the obesity problem.

Our current approach to addressing obesity is not yielding the desired results. However, as with many other health challenges, the solution may once again emerge from Big Pharma.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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