Britain is third fattest nation, with more than half overweight

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The Independent Online
IT IS a fat, fat world and it is getting fatter. At least 300 million people worldwide are severely overweight and their number is set to grow at twice the rate of the underweight over the next 30 years, according to the World Health Organisation.

Starvation may be stalking Africa but in northern Europe, the United States and Russia waistlines are expanding. Britons are among the fattest people on earth, following only the well-padded Russians and the ample- bottomed Americans. In all three nations, more than half the population have a body mass index over 25, defined as overweight.

The World Health Report 1998, published today, says the extra pounds of flesh have grave consequences for those who carry them.

In the late Nineties, overnutrition is the cause of one million excess adult deaths a year compared with 500,000 excess deaths caused by malnutrition and starvation. Death rates are raised by 25 per cent in the underweight but are doubled in the overweight, the report says.

Thomson Prentice, author of the report, said: "The lifestyles of people round the world are becoming dangerously obese and it is down to diet."

However, the report also offers an optimistic picture of life in the 21st century with the prospect of a healthy and extended old age becoming a reality for more people. Progress against certain diseases has been dramatic.

In Europe, 15 per cent of those who died in 1995 were under 50 and the figure is set to halve to 7 per cent by 2025. Deaths from heart disease have fallen sharply in Australia, Canada, Finland, France, New Zealand and the US.

Studies in the US show fewer old people with disabilities in 1994 compared with 1982. Instead of a long slow decline towards death, people are living more years of healthy life before ending their lives with greater rapidity and less suffering. "We are living longer and dying shorter," said Mr Prentice.

By 2025, 26 countries are expected to have a life expectancy at birth of above 80 years. It will be highest in Iceland, Italy, Japan and Sweden (82) followed by Australia, Canada, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Singapore, Spain and Switzerland (81 years).

The greying of the world has major social implications as increasing numbers of elderly people are dependent, for financial and social support, on a diminishing workforce. The WHO says that now that people have become accustomed to the idea of investing in a pension for their old age they should consider investing in their health for the same reason.

Mr Prentice said: "Just as you can save money for your retirement you can save on health too, by stopping smoking, changing your diet or taking more exercise. f you are fit to work longer, you won't have to retire and will be less dependent on others. The way to insure yourself for a better old age is to take that action now."