Women have a substantial higher chance of being obese than men, reveals a recent study from McKinsey & Company, with the relationship becoming increasingly true in countries where obesity is a major issue. For policy makers, it implies that careful thought needs to be given about healthcare strategy and intervention plans, in particular in countries where obesity has deep roots within culture and society.
In the report ‘Overcoming Obesity: An Initial Economic Analysis’, McKinsey & Company looks into the economic and societal effects of obesity. The firm finds that globally obesity is one of the three top social burdens generated by humanity’s contemporary lifestyle, generating a total burden of $2.0 trillion per year, trailing just smoking and violence / terrorism. There are also massive social costs, with 2.8 million of a total 59 million deaths per year tied to obesity. In the UK the price tag of obesity is estimated at $73 billion a year, making it after smoking the second largest health liability of the country’s economy.
Gender and obesity
One of the areas researched by the strategy consultants is the relationship between gender and obesity. Key finding is that while obesity is something that can, and does, affect both genders, it predominantly affects women. Of the 196 countries for which the OECD has data available on obesity, obesity is highest among women in 168 of them. The effect is exaggerated in the countries with the highest overall obesity prevalence – in the top 20 countries in which obesity is most prevalent, obese women outnumber men in all of them. For instance, in Kuwait, where 42% of the population is obese, the difference between male and female prevalence is 12%, with 38% and 50% respectively. In Egypt the difference between gender is the greatest at 24%, while in the United States the difference is 4% in favour of women. In Lebanon a quarter of men is obese, with the female average 7 percentage points higher.
The gender disparity is according to the researchers the result of a complex interplay of social, cultural, and biological factors.
Obese and opportunities
The report also highlights that there are certain socioeconomic burdens that obese women bear over their obese opposites. The higher prevalence in women implies that they carry more of the burden of obesity, says McKinsey, including reduced life expectancy, greater risk of obesity-related disease, poorer career opportunities* and increased medical costs. The authors recommend that in countries with a large obesity gender gaps, careful thought needs to be given about how best to intervene, particularly in countries where effective mitigation may require overcoming strong social and cultural barriers.
* A recent study in the US showed that obese teenage girls were less likely to enrol in college than girls in their age group who are not obese; this did not hold true for teenage boys. Enrolment by girls in high schools that had relatively few obese teenagers was also lower, suggesting that self-perception and confidence play a role. Research has also shown that obese women earn less than those who are not obese and that this income penalty continues throughout their careers. Men are less disadvantaged as women in this respect.