Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The weight of nations: an estimation of adult human biomass

Sarah Catherine Walpole1*, David Prieto-Merino2, Phil Edwards2, John Cleland2, Gretchen Stevens3 and Ian Roberts2

Author affiliations

1 Foundation Year 2 doctor, North Yorkshire and East Coast deanery, 4 Hilton Place, Leeds, LS8 4HE, UK

2 Faculty of Epidemiology and Population Health, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Keppel Street, London, WC1E 7HT, UK

3 Department of Health Statistics and Informatics, World Health Organization, 20 Avenue Appia, Geneva 27, 1211, Switzerland

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Citation and License

BMC Public Health 2012, 12:439  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-12-439

Published: 18 June 2012



The energy requirement of species at each trophic level in an ecological pyramid is a function of the number of organisms and their average mass. Regarding human populations, although considerable attention is given to estimating the number of people, much less is given to estimating average mass, despite evidence that average body mass is increasing. We estimate global human biomass, its distribution by region and the proportion of biomass due to overweight and obesity.


For each country we used data on body mass index (BMI) and height distribution to estimate average adult body mass. We calculated total biomass as the product of population size and average body mass. We estimated the percentage of the population that is overweight (BMI > 25) and obese (BMI > 30) and the biomass due to overweight and obesity.


In 2005, global adult human biomass was approximately 287 million tonnes, of which 15 million tonnes were due to overweight (BMI > 25), a mass equivalent to that of 242 million people of average body mass (5% of global human biomass). Biomass due to obesity was 3.5 million tonnes, the mass equivalent of 56 million people of average body mass (1.2% of human biomass). North America has 6% of the world population but 34% of biomass due to obesity. Asia has 61% of the world population but 13% of biomass due to obesity. One tonne of human biomass corresponds to approximately 12 adults in North America and 17 adults in Asia. If all countries had the BMI distribution of the USA, the increase in human biomass of 58 million tonnes would be equivalent in mass to an extra 935 million people of average body mass, and have energy requirements equivalent to that of 473 million adults.


Increasing population fatness could have the same implications for world food energy demands as an extra half a billion people living on the earth.