It's already being called the next deadly global pandemic.
Projected to be a bigger threat to life than AIDS and malaria combined, obesity is quickly becoming the world's most severe health-care crisis. As waistlines grow alarmingly, so do concerns over the impact an unhealthy population could have on everything from medicine to the economy.
The numbers paint a disturbing picture. The United Nations says there are now more overweight people in the world than starving people. Cardiovascular disease - commonly caused by obesity - kills 17 million people every year. Type II diabetes fatalities are expected to grow by 50 per cent in the next decade.
Obesity is not new, but what's surprising is that it now plagues the developing world, too. Obesity is on a dramatic rise in poor states, as impoverished locals are increasingly introduced to mass-produced imported food that's often cheaper than their local fare.
"It's a huge problem," says Erin Blanding, a development expert and head of Life in Action, a Toronto-based health and lifestyle program. "Eating unhealthy food is what you do when you are poor."
Processed food is becoming a staple in the diets of many developing countries, much of it coming from Western factories. Visit a local market in places like Ecuador or Malawi and you're just as likely to see imported sugary cereals and juices as local produce. Outside, Big Macs are taking the place of traditionally prepared plantains and sweet potato biscuits.
Food high in fat and low in nutrients is cheaply made and easily shipped, which undercuts local prices. But shoppers who cannot afford anything else buy it.
Even rural farmers with access to their own healthy livestock or produce commonly trade what they can for larger quantities of processed food, just to ensure their families have enough to eat.
With this cycle, Blanding explains, "We aren't giving people the choice to create better and healthier lives for themselves."
Obesity once was a symbol of Western abundance and indulgence. Today, just as many people are overweight because they are filling their stomachs with whatever they can afford - and what they can afford is making them obese.
By 2030, obesity will be the Number 1 killer of poor people around the world, the World Health Organization says. This will be an enormous burden on countries struggling to escape poverty. As health-care costs skyrocket and the size of healthy workforces shrink, their hard-fought progress toward development will be in jeopardy.
Obesity threatens rich nations, still. A 2006 study in the American Journal of Public Health found nearly a third of preschool children in low-income urban areas of the United States to be overweight or obese - more than twice the national average.
Yet, obesity is avoidable. What is needed is more commitment by governments and the food industry to produce healthier food, to ensure the most vulnerable people - at home and abroad - are not offered food options that will make them sick.
Health is not a luxury for those who can buy fresh organic food at their local market. It's a human right, no less fundamental than free speech or freedom of religion.
As Blanding puts it: "Can we really sustain ourselves when we have more overweight people than healthy people?"
Craig and Marc Kielburger are children's rights activists and co-founded Free The Children, which is active in the developing world. Online: They discuss global issues Mondays in the World & Comment section. Join the discussion online at thestar.com/globalvoices.
© 2008 The Toronto Star