Global obesity rates are rising faster in rural rather than urban areas, according to a new study by international and Canadian researchers. The study, published in Nature, challenges the now-outdated notion that obesity is mainly an urban problem, urging policymakers to rethink their approach to the issue.
Obesity is now a major global health crisis and runs the gamut of serious health complications including stroke, heart failure, diabetes and more. Although figures vary, one report by the McKinsey Institute estimates that obesity drives a $2.1 trillion burden on global GDP, a figure that’s on par with the cost of armed violence, war and terrorism.
Around two billion people are thought to be overweight or obese worldwide, close to a third of the global population.
Data on 112 million adults from urban and rural areas of more than 200 countries were analyzed as part of the study. Researchers assessed the study participants’ BMI (Body Mass Index) to identify trends across the study period (1987 – 2017). The BMI takes into account an individual’s height and weight (BMI=kg/m²) and provides a score to determine whether they are of a healthy weight; 18.5 – 25 is considered healthy.
A key result of the study was that since 1985, the average BMI for a rural individual has risen by 2.1 for both men and women, whereas in urban settings, it rose by only 1.6 and 1.3 respectively.
Interestingly, urban dwellers in over three-quarters of countries in this study had a higher BMI than rural people in 1985, but this distance has narrowed or even reversed in recent years.
The researchers suspect that disadvantages common to rural areas may explain the rising obesity trends. Higher costs and limited access to healthy foods, fewer athletic facilities, and lower average household incomes may explain the situation.
Another suggested reason is the jump in access to processed foods in rural areas: “Modern food supply is now available in combination with cheap mechanised devices for farming and transport,” wrote Barry Popkin in a commentary piece. “Ultra-processed foods are also becoming part of the diets of poor people.”
“The results of this massive global study overturn commonly held perceptions that more people living in cities is the main cause of the global rise in obesity,” says senior author Majid Ezzati. “This means that we need to rethink how we tackle this global health problem.”