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Meat consumption contributing to global obesity

Photo: Livingasart, Buying Meat Two, Flickr, creative commons licence 2.0
Photo: Livingasart, Buying Meat Two, Flickr, creative commons licence 2.0

Energy intake has long been recognised as a factor in obesity, but more recently, interest has increased in whether some dietary patterns containing differing amounts of macronutrients and food groups, contribute more to body weight gain than do others.

Contributing to this debate, these two companion studies use national level statistics across 170 countries to show that increased meat availability is significantly correlated with obesity and overweight, and that meat availability’s contribution to obesity at the population level is statistically equivalent to that of sugar, even when in both cases, possible confounding factors are controlled for. Based on these results, the authors suggest that ‘country authorities may advise people not to adopt a high-meat diet for long-term healthy weight management’.

Both studies use the same dataset, which combined country-specific statistics for obesity (BMI 30 kgm-2 plus), overweight (BMI between 25-30 kgm-2), average BMI, and physical activity from the World Health Organisation, with UNFAO food availability data for food groups, and World Bank data on GDP per capita (adjusted for purchasing power) and urbanisation. For each study, data on confounding factors - GDP per capita, total calorie availability, and physical activity levels - known to affect obesity levels, were collected and used to statistically isolate the effect of meat availability on obesity and or overweight. Using this dataset, the studies set out to:

  1. Test the hypothesis that differences in meat availability levels, contributes to increasing levels of obesity and overweight.
  2. Evaluate and compare from a global perspective, the correlation levels of obesity prevalence to sugar and meat availability.

The authors proposed mechanism for meat’s contribution to increasing fat levels, is that in the modern diet, carbohydrates and fats are digested more quickly to satisfy body’s energetic needs, with protein then providing an energy surplus that is stored as fat, due to the fact that it is digested later. Although the results of this study do not contradict this, neither are the correlations derived able to confirm this mechanism. The studies therefore call for prospective cohort trials to be conducted in order to further explore meat’s association with obesity and overweight.

The findings of these studies are the result of correlation and regression analysis of relationships between country per-capita data, for 170 countries. As a result, its findings only speak to relationships between food group availability, obesity and overweight, at the country level and not at the level of individuals. Other caveats include the fact that data on food availability and not on actual consumption was used for the analysis, and that while this study did control for confounding variables, it may not have captured all that are significant.


Background: Excessive energy intake has been identified as a major contributor to the global obesity epidemic. However, it is not clear whether dietary patterns varying in their composition of food groups contribute. This study aims to determine whether differences in per capita availability of the major food groups could explain differences in global obesity prevalence.

Methods: Country-specific Body Mass Index (BMI) estimates (mean, prevalence of obesity and overweight) were obtained. BMI estimates were then matched to mean of three year-and country-specific availability of total kilocalories per capita per day, major food groups (meat, starch, fibers, fats and fruits). The per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and prevalence of physical inactivity for each country were also obtained. SPSS was used for log-transformed data analysis.

Results: Spearman analyses of the different major food groups shows that meat availability is most highly correlated with prevalence of obesity (r = 0.666, p < 0.001) and overweight (r = 0.800, p < 0.001) and mean BMI (r = 0.656, p < 0.001) and that these relationships remain when total caloric availability, prevalence of physical inactivity and GDP are controlled in partial correlation analysis. Stepwise multiple linear regression analysis indicates that meat availability is the most significant predictors of prevalence of obesity and overweight and mean BMI among the food groups. Scatter plot diagrams show meat and GDP adjusted meat are strongly correlated to obesity prevalence.

Conclusion: High meat availability is correlated to increased prevalence of obesity. Effective strategies to reduce meat consumption may have differential effects in countries at different stages of the nutrition transition.


You, W., & Henneberg, M. (2016). Meat consumption providing a surplus energy in modern diet contributes to obesity prevalence: an ecological analysis. BMC Nutrition, 2(1), 1. DOI: 10.1186/s40795-016-0063-9

You, W., & Henneberg, M. (2016). Meat in Modern Diet, Just as Bad as Sugar, Correlates with Worldwide Obesity: An Ecological Analysis. J Nutr Food Sci, 6(517), 2. DOI:10.4172/2155-9600.1000517

Read the full papers here (open access) and here (open access). For further coverage see here.

You can read related research by browsing the following categories of our research library: consumption and diets, health issues, meat, eggs and alternatives, sugar.

And through the keyword categories: food consumption, health policy, nutrition policy, sustainable healthy diets.

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