Is this the first year that more people worldwide have died from obesity than malnutrition?

26 October 2012

Twitter, 25 October 2012

Wired magazine's 2012 conference on business and tecnology attracted many of the great and the good of the social media world to London this week, causing quite a splash on Twitter.

One striking claim that attracted a great deal of interest - including that of several Full Fact readers who wanted to know more - was that made by digital advertising executive Jess Greenwood, who said that this is the first year in history that obesity has claimed more lives than malnutrition.

The asserion was picked up by the Wired journalist Maria Popova, whose quarter of a million Twitter followers quickly spread the claim across the four corners of the internet. But is it actually true?


Commuters with long memories might be suspicious. The same claim was actually reported last year by the Metro newspaper, who ran an article under the headline "World now has 'more people dying from obesity than malnutrition'."

The report focusses on the comments of Bekele Geleta, Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, whose 2011 World Disasters Report highlights the problem of unequal distribution of the world's food supplies.

In an accompanying article, Mr Geleta writes:

"Now, in 2011, I find it perplexing and dismaying that when there is more food available than ever before, when agricultural yields have increased hugely, when there are 1.5 billion people worldwide classified as obese, 925 million people simply don't have enough to eat."

This would seem to suggest that Ms Greenwood's claim is out-of-date, with these reports suggesting that last year was the point that obesity overtook malnutrition as the bigger killer.

Dig a little deeper however and more problems emerge.

Firstly, when you look at the citation for these figures, the World Disasters Report points to World Health Organization (WHO) statistics. Sure enough, the WHO does make use of them, pointing out that:

"1.5 billion people are overweight worldwide, of whom 500 million are obese, in 2008 figures."

The source of the claim is therefore grounded in 2008 data, meaning that the point at which obesity would have overtaken malnutrition in the mortality stakes is even earlier than the Metro report would suggest.

However there is an even bigger problem with this claim. While the WHO does put the number of obese and overweight people at 1.5 billion (although only a third of these are actually obese, a point missed in Mr Geleta's article), it doesn't say that this is the number of people who die as a result. In fact, WHO estimates that:

"worldwide, at least 2.6 million people die each year as a result of being overweight or obese."

This is clearly a much smaller figure than that which was quoted either by the Red Cross, or by the Metro. By way of comparison, the World Disaster Report points out that malnutrition kills more children every year, before we even consider adult deaths:

"Every year some 9 million children across the world die before they reach their fifth birthday, and about one-third of these untimely deaths is attributed to undernutrition (Black et al., 2008)."

To be fair to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and their Secretary General, neither actually claim that obesity is the bigger killer; this seems to be an inference made by the Metro (or rather one of its sub-editors, as the claim is only mentioned in the headline, rather than the article itself).


Jess Greenwood's claim seems to be based uppon newspaper headlines that were generated over a year ago. However the claim isn't just dated, it also appears to be wrong.

While the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies did claim that the number of obesity cases outnumbered the number of people afflicted by malnutrition (although according to the World Health Organization statistics they cite, this only holds true if you include the obese and overweight), it didn't argue that obesity was the bigger killer worldwide.

On the strength of the evidence we've seen therefore, it might be best if this claim was starved of any further publicity.

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