The Looming Global Obesity Threat

October 16, 2019

By: Roger Thurow, Senior Fellow, Global Food and Agriculture

This paper seeks to raise awareness of the growing global obesity epidemic and the need to address the economic, security, and humanitarian threats it poses for the United States and the world. While the development community—including global agriculture, health, and security practitioners—has been focused on combatting undernutrition, the number of people who are obese or overweight has been on the rise and is now on par with the 2 billion who are food insecure.

In western countries where the epidemic started, obesity is not just an enormous health and economic burden, but a national security threat. Seventy percent of 17-to 24-year-olds in America are reported to be unfit to serve in the military, with being overweight and obese as the leading disqualifier.

An increasingly sedentary lifestyle and growing reliance on unhealthy processed food has spread to low and middle-income countries around the world. Many of these countries are experiencing a “double burden” of malnutrition, in which people who are overweight or have obesity coexist with those experiencing undernutrition, threatening the growth and vitality of their societies.

So far, policy responses from national governments have been slow and inadequate. The costs of the epidemic have not yet been viewed as urgent enough to generate the public demand or political will to act. The view of obesity as a global “syndemic,” along with undernutrition and climate change, has the potential to help rally attention to the challenge. The paper calls for local, national, and global efforts to recognize obesity as the economic, moral, and security crisis that it is and to summon the political will to end the epidemic.


Hunger and Obesity: The Council has been exploring the topic of hunger & obesity with partner institutions and fellows, led by Catherine Bertini. Over the next few months we will feature selected papers to highlight this work. This project has been made possible through the generous support of the Rockefeller Foundation.

The Looming Global Obesity Threat

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