Global patterns in excess body weight and the associated cancer burden

CA Cancer J Clin. 2019 Mar;69(2):88-112. doi: 10.3322/caac.21499. Epub 2018 Dec 12.


The prevalence of excess body weight and the associated cancer burden have been rising over the past several decades globally. Between 1975 and 2016, the prevalence of excess body weight in adults-defined as a body mass index (BMI) ≥ 25 kg/m2 -increased from nearly 21% in men and 24% in women to approximately 40% in both sexes. Notably, the prevalence of obesity (BMI ≥ 30 kg/m2 ) quadrupled in men, from 3% to 12%, and more than doubled in women, from 7% to 16%. This change, combined with population growth, resulted in a more than 6-fold increase in the number of obese adults, from 100 to 671 million. The largest absolute increase in obesity occurred among men and boys in high-income Western countries and among women and girls in Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. The simultaneous rise in excess body weight in almost all countries is thought to be driven largely by changes in the global food system, which promotes energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods, alongside reduced opportunities for physical activity. In 2012, excess body weight accounted for approximately 3.9% of all cancers (544,300 cases) with proportion varying from less than 1% in low-income countries to 7% or 8% in some high-income Western countries and in Middle Eastern and Northern African countries. The attributable burden by sex was higher for women (368,500 cases) than for men (175,800 cases). Given the pandemic proportion of excess body weight in high-income countries and the increasing prevalence in low- and middle-income countries, the global cancer burden attributable to this condition is likely to increase in the future. There is emerging consensus on opportunities for obesity control through the multisectoral coordinated implementation of core policy actions to promote an environment conducive to a healthy diet and active living. The rapid increase in both the prevalence of excess body weight and the associated cancer burden highlights the need for a rejuvenated focus on identifying, implementing, and evaluating interventions to prevent and control excess body weight.

Keywords: adiposity; body fatness; cancer; cancer burden; cancer incidence; excess body weight; global obesity epidemic; overweight; population-attributable fraction; prevalence.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Body Mass Index
  • Cost of Illness
  • Female
  • Global Health / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Obesity / complications
  • Obesity / diagnosis
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Overweight / complications
  • Overweight / diagnosis
  • Overweight / epidemiology*
  • Prevalence
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Factors