efe-epaBy Belén Delgado Rome

Around two billion adults in the world are overweight, a condition that is worsening at an unprecedented rate and shows no signs of waning, experts warned Wednesday.

The UN estimated that of that number around 672 million were obese, 13 percent of the global population, in its most recent study in 2016.

"The issue of people now becoming overweight or suffering obesity is becoming a global issue, it's affecting many millions and millions of people more even than under-nutrition or lack of food," Tim Lobstein, policy director at the World Obesity Federation, told Efe.

"It's now possibly the world's number one health problem in public health issues, with very little attention and very little money being directed to actually tackle this seriously."

Excess body fat is thought to be directly responsible for around four million deaths every year.

The toll of obesity alone costs 2.8 percent of GDP worldwide, according to a special commission by The Lancet.

It also warned that malnutrition in all its facets is the largest cause of illness and premature death worldwide.

Both obesity and being overweight are considered high-risk factors for many chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer.

Rates of excess body weight have increased dramatically in the last decade, and middle to low-income countries are not immune to the trend.

Several African and Asian states have been affected, such as South Africa where 41 percent of women were considered obese and Egypt where the rate is 26 percent of men, according to a global map created in 2016 by the World Obesity Federation.

But some of the most affected areas are island states in the Pacific and Caribbean, Lobstein warned.

"Possibly because they are importing a lot of their food and under World, Trade Organization rules it's very difficult to prevent the import of unhealthy foods," he said.

"If the food is unsafe then obviously it can be prevented, but simply saying it's got too much sugar in it or too much fat, much harder to prevent its import."

The shift towards a less healthy diet has been linked to economic development, urbanization and sedentism.

Even countries that have traditionally been associated with a Mediterranean diet, rich in vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fruits, have been affected by the rise in the consumption of cheap fast foods.

In the last two decades, the average weight of people in places such as the United Kingdom and the United States has risen by 10 kilograms.

For Lobstein, the priority needs to be to focus on policies, not individuals, which would mean targeting marketing, restricting advertising, food labeling and possibly taxing sugary foods, as some countries have already done.

This would have to work in conjunction with making healthier foods cheaper so that a real incentive was promoted for people to shift to a healthier diet.

"Obviously the food industry has a role to play because it's going to have to start making the changes that society needs," Lobstein said.

"We can't carry on with a food industry that fights every public health measure, that resists any change and that continues to want to promote high levels of sugars, salts and fats in our diet.

"That can't continue, we will all die." EFE-EPA