Universities’ role in tackling the obesity crisis

The world is experiencing a rapid rise in obesity rates. The World Health Organization, or WHO, reports that global obesity has more than doubled since 1980. In developing countries, obesity rates have tripled over the past 20 years, due to increased consumption of high caloric foods and a sedentary lifestyle.

Obesity, excessive weight and their corresponding ailments are responsible for 5% of global mortality. Fighting this alarmingly rapid rise in obesity is now a policy priority for the WHO. In May 2004, the WHO published the “WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health”. In an address on 8 February 2017, Dr Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO, noted that while hunger remains a global issue, “most of the world got fat” over the past decade.

This is an issue for everyone, irrespective of education or income level. However, it is particularly salient for institutions of higher education throughout the world, as they are charged with educating and developing the young adults of tomorrow. Further, these institutions possess the resources and facilities to develop programmes to foster and promote cultures of health.

In North America, there is a positive correlation between education and income and a decrease in obesity; data indicates that people with more than high school education are less likely to have a problem with excessive weight.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reports that among their member states, adults with higher literacy and a higher level of education regard themselves as being in good health 33% more than those with lower literacy and educational attainment.

This is less the case in the developing world, where the younger generation arising from a new and rapidly growing middle class is experiencing a growth in obesity rates.

In a 2014 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, covering 15,746 undergraduate students at 22 universities in low-income, middle-income and emerging economy countries, researchers found that, on average, 22% of the sample population was either overweight or obese.

Higher education institutions in developing countries provide students with improved economic prospects. They are also responsible for addressing the trend of increased higher education without corresponding drops in obesity.

The case of Egypt

According to a 2010 WHO report, 70% of Egyptians are overweight or obese, the highest rate in Africa. The highest rates within Egypt are among the educated and wealthy. Thus, Egypt is a suitable developing country to study.

The Egyptian government itself is aware of this rising health epidemic. The Ministry of Health and Population conducted an “Egypt Health Issues Survey” in 2015 in order to understand the extent of health issues among the population. The results are astonishing. For ages 15-59, the rate of excessive weight or obesity among women is 76% and among men 60.7%.

Contrary to Europe and the United States, in Egypt higher education does not shield against obesity. For Egyptian men with no education, the rate of obesity or excessive weight is 60.9 %, compared to 68.2% among those who have completed secondary education or higher education.

Egyptian women with no education are found to be overweight or obese at a rate of 83.1%, but the rate is still a disturbing 77.3% for those who completed secondary education or higher education – again, an issue that higher education institutions should address.

Furthermore, as wealth increases in Egypt, rates of excessive weight or obesity also rise. When comparing the lowest wealth quartile to the highest quartile, rates for men move from 51.9% to 67.8%, respectively, and for women from 70.9% to 78.4%, respectively.

As Egypt is increasing access to higher education, aiming to increase enrolment from 32% to 40% by 2021-22, and as the enrolment growth is expected to be absorbed principally by fee-based private universities, higher education institutions, especially private universities, will enrol those most at risk of being overweight or obese: the educated and wealthy.

Current physical activity initiatives in Egypt

Lack of physical activity is one of the main contributing factors to being overweight and obesity. Egyptian universities already recognise the importance of physical activity. Cairo University, the country’s flagship institution, includes athletics in its student activity mission.

The private American University in Cairo or AUC incorporates a Western system of athletics and recreation into its approach to education. The availability – and careful use – of suitable facilities is at the core of any strategy to increase opportunities for physical activity among students.

Compared to Western universities, however, access hours for available resources are limited. Universities need to develop plans to increase usage of their facilities. The usage of AUC fitness facilities by undergraduate students is very low, at only 10%. If this is the case at AUC, the elite private Egyptian university, one could conclude that the other private and public institutions in Egypt are seeing similar or even lower levels of engagement by students.

In contrast, in North America, 75% of students use on-campus recreation facilities and programmes. If Egyptian universities could increase the number of hours of access and develop specific physical activity and health educational programmes, they would increase physical activity among students and address one of the main contributing factors to obesity.

Prioritising health

Developed countries show positive correlations between higher education levels and lower levels of excessive weight and obesity. This correlation is not causation. Developing countries may encounter the opposite, so it is important for universities in these countries to make health and wellness central to their institutional mission.

Developing countries must intensify their efforts to increase student engagement in physical activity programmes, a key plank in dealing with an obesity crisis that can only be halted and reversed through education and participation.

Developing countries lag behind in regard to economic performance and education levels; in addition, the overall health of their populations will continue to fall behind if educational institutions do not prioritise the health of their students.

Caitríona Taylor is associate athletic director at Boston College, United States. Email: This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.