The number of kids and teenagers with obesity increased from 11 million to 124 million worldwide between 1975 and 2016, researchers in the U.K. and at the World Health Organization (WHO) have found. If left unattended, the obesity rate will exceed moderate and severe underweight by 2022.

Childhood obesity can cause early onset of cardiac disease, cancer, diabetes and other conditions, as Leanne Riley of the WHO told CBS News. Those affected can also experiment psychological issues and become targets for bullies, she added.

Obesity in the world 2017, Obesity statics worldwide, Childhood obesity articles
Childhood obesity has increased significantly around the world. Image credit: The Huffington Post

Published Tuesday in the journal Lancet, the study included more than 31 million people ages 5 to 19. The scientists analyzed data from more than 2,400 studies that monitored the height and weight of children from around the world and designed models to calculate trends in body mass index.

The most alarming trends occur in low-income countries

Last year, the heaviest kids and teens were in Nauru, the Cook Islands, and Palau. These are very small islands located in Micronesia and the South Pacific Ocean, where rates reached more than 30 percent. Obesity rates in children and teenagers were above 20 percent in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

As for some high-income countries, trends did not change significantly. They stayed high, but the rise in the prevalence of obesity was not statistically substantial. Still, the researchers warned that there’s nothing to celebrate.

Study author Majid Ezzati of the Imperial College London told The Associated Press that the world’s high-income countries still have high obesity levels and the goal is to cut them instead of keeping the same rates.

“This shows that something can be done about obesity, but it might be an exaggeration to call this ‘good news,” said Ezzati, as quoted by The Associated Press. “These are still pretty high levels and we don’t want it to stay there; we want it to go down.”

Potentially effective measures

Taxes can be implemented on unhealthy foods and drinks in nations with high rates of obesity. This is already a reality in Mexico, Britain, and South Africa. Additionally, Ezzati said healthy foods should be more affordable, so junk food stops being always the cheapest alternative. He emphasized that poor people have a tough time at trying to eat healthily.

“Unaffordability of healthy food options not only leads to social inequalities in overweight and obesity, but might also limit the effect of policies that target unhealthy foods,” the authors wrote in the journal Lancet.

They also noted that inequality associated with obesity is linked to unaffordability of quality health care. Policymakers could tackle this problem by improving access for the most vulnerable populations to prevent obesity rates from keeping rising.

Tam Fry, chairman of Britain’s National Obesity Forum, said ignoring the rise in obesity rates only leads to the increase of the problems that eventually come with it, as reported by CBS News. In addition to the already mentioned conditions, obesity can increase the risk of catching infectious diseases.

Financial costs

Separately, researchers at the World Obesity Federation estimated that worldwide obesity rates went from less than 1 percent in 1975 to about 6 percent for girls and 8 percent for boys. They calculated that there are 50 million girls and 74 million boys who are overweight.

The scientists found evidence that public finance is just as compromised as public health. According to their calculations, the effects of obesity will cost the whole planet’s health care systems $1.2 trillion per year by 2025.

Moreover, the increase in health care costs to the United States is expected to leave all other countries behind. The nation was paying as much as $325 billion per year in 2014 to treat heart attacks, strokes, obesity-related cancers, and diabetes, among other health problems in severely overweight patients.

Unless active measures are taken to stop the epidemic, the WOF said that figure would reach $555 billion by 2025. Between this year and 2025, the U.S. would pay a total amount of $4.2 trillion on health care associated with illness caused by obesity, the researchers estimated.

Underweight is still a wider-scale problem

Obesity in the world 2017, Obesity statics worldwide, Childhood obesity articles
The researchers found the most underweight children live in India. Image credit: Compassion Blog

Although both issues require urgent action, more children are undernourished rather than obese. Compared with 38 million in 2015, the WHO calculated that 815 million people across the world were underweight in 2016. That amounts to about 11 percent of the global population.

The most underweight kids live in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. About 20 percent of girls and 28 percent of boys in South Asia are either moderately or severely underweight, which means they are at high risk of pregnancy complications in the case of teen girls and infectious diseases in the case of both genders.

The WHO report states that as much as 155 million kids younger than five are too short for their age and the weight of another 52 million is too few for their height.

Source: CBS News