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BACKGROUND: In high-income countries, obesity prevalence (body mass index greater than or equal to 30 kg/m2) is highest among the poor, while overweight (body mass index greater than or equal to 25 kg/m2) is prevalent across all wealth groups. In contrast, in low-income countries, the prevalence of overweight and obesity is higher among wealthier individuals than among poorer individuals. We characterize the transition of overweight and obesity from wealthier to poorer populations as countries develop, and project the burden of overweight and obesity among the poor for 103 countries. METHODS AND FINDINGS: Our sample used 182 Demographic and Health Surveys and World Health Surveys (n = 2.24 million respondents) from 1995 to 2016. We created a standard wealth index using household assets common among all surveys and linked national wealth by country and year identifiers. We then estimated the changing probability of overweight and obesity across every wealth decile as countries' per capita gross domestic product (GDP) rises using logistic and linear fixed-effect regression models. We found that obesity rates among the wealthiest decile were relatively stable with increasing national wealth, and the changing gradient was largely due to increasing obesity prevalence among poorer populations (3.5% [95% uncertainty interval: 0.0%-8.3%] to 14.3% [9.7%-19.0%]). Overweight prevalence among the richest (45.0% [35.6%-54.4%]) and the poorest (45.5% [35.9%-55.0%]) were roughly equal in high-income settings. At $8,000 GDP per capita, the adjusted probability of being obese was no longer highest in the richest decile, and the same was true of overweight at $10,000. Above $25,000, individuals in the richest decile were less likely than those in the poorest decile to be obese, and the same was true of overweight at $50,000. We then projected overweight and obesity rates by wealth decile to 2040 for all countries to quantify the expected rise in prevalence in the relatively poor. Our projections indicated that, if past trends continued, the number of people who are poor and overweight will increase in our study countries by a median 84.4% (range 3.54%-383.4%), most prominently in low-income countries. The main limitations of this study included the inclusion of cross-sectional, self-reported data, possible reverse causality of overweight and obesity on wealth, and the lack of physical activity and food price data. CONCLUSIONS: Our findings indicate that as countries develop economically, overweight prevalence increased substantially among the poorest and stayed mostly unchanged among the wealthiest. The relative poor in upper- and lower-middle income countries may have the greatest burden, indicating important planning and targeting needs for national health programs.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS Med

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Adolescent, Adult, Body Mass Index, Cross-Sectional Studies, Developing Countries, Family Characteristics, Female, Global Health, Health Surveys, Humans, Income, Male, Middle Aged, Obesity, Overweight, Poverty, Prevalence, Socioeconomic Factors