The claim

“People still don’t realise that the problem is not just limited to rich countries, that worldwide being obese or overweight now causes more deaths than under-nutrition”
Jamie Oliver, open letter to Secretary of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon, 20 September 2011

The background

Jamie Oliver’s kitchen scales know no bounds. After weighing up Britain’s obesity problems, he took on the challenge of America’s most obese town – which left him in tears.

TV royalty David Letterman told the plucky British chef to stop interfering – but it seems America is not Jamie’s final frontier. Next stop? The world.

As leaders of the world convene in New York for the UN’s annual assembly, Jamie has thrown his Food Revolution under their noses.

But is there even a whiff of truth to his claim? FactCheck investigates.

The analysis

Overall, more than 10 per cent of the world’s adult population was obese in 2008, by the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) calculations. On the flip side, 14 per cent of the world goes to bed hungry, the World Food Programme reports – so “under-nutrition” looks set to be the bigger problem.

However, obesity spawns all manner of nasties – the WHO says it can be blamed for 44 per cent of the diabetes burden, 23 per cent of heart disease cases and between 7 per cent and 41 per cent of certain cancer cases.

And Jamie is right, the problem is not just one in the developed world.

Overweight and obesity, and all the associated health problems, are on the rise in poorer parts of the world. “This spreading of fast food culture, sedentary lifestyle and increase in bodyweight has led some to coin the emerging threat a ‘globesity’ epidemic,” the World Economic Forum (WEF) notes.

The problem is particularly acute in urban settings in low and middle-income countries – countries that are, worryingly, “witnessing the fastest rise in overweight young children”, WHO says.

In 2010 some 43m children under five were overweight. But surprisingly, 35m of them hailed from developing countries – a number that completely eclipses the 8m overweight kids in richer, developed countries.

The WEF finds that in richer countries the more you earn, the less likely you are to be obese. But in developing countries a general increase in income does not lead to a decrease in obesity.

“In poorer countries, higher socioeconomic status groups tend to be at greater risk of developing obesity-related noncommittal [non-contagious] diseases, whereas in wealthier countries, lower socioeconomic groups tend to be a greater risk,” the WEF said.

Dr Eva Jane-Llopis, head of chronic diseases and well-being at the WEF, told FactCheck: “The point we need to make is that the world is facing a double burden of malnutrition and obesity. There is high mortality due to under-nutrition but at the same time what Jamie says is true – we face an epidemic of obesity, and all the problems associated with obesity are making (mortality) cases higher.”

She said the number of deaths from heart disease and diabetes would be lower if it were not for obesity – which she stressed is not a disease, as it is preventable.

“The poor diet and lack of physical exercise that come with obesity are leading to higher levels of heart disease and diabetes,” Dr Llopis added.

Around 57m people died in 2008, with heart disease accounting for 7.25m deaths. Diabetes came in at number nine, killing 1.26m people.

The verdict

Jamie Oliver gets a lot of flak for stepping outside the kitchen with his big ideas. And by all means, rib him for having the nous to flog fancy jam jars to the middle classes. But you can’t fault him on this.

No one denies  the effects of under-nutrition – 2.2m underweight children died in 2004. But the simple fact is that 65 per cent of the world’s population lives in countries where being overweight or obese kill more people than under-nutrition.

Overweight and obesity alone is world’s fifth biggest killer, claiming the lives of at least 2.8m people a year, according to the WHO. And that’s a conservative estimate when you consider that obesity almost doubles diabetes cases, prompts a fifth of heart disease cases and contributes to up to 41 per cent of cancer cases.

Developing countries are witnessing the fastest rise in obesity in young children. Obesity is not a disease, it is preventable – and Jamie argues that the key is educating people.

Education costs money; but it could be money well-spent, as obesity has been shown to bump up annual healthcare bills by a super-sized 36 per cent.

The WEF meanwhile, expects the diseases linked with obesity to cost the world $20 trillion in the next 20 years. That’s some food bill.

By Emma Thelwell