Why obesity is no longer a rich world problem

Obesity rates triple in developing countries. A report by the Overseas Development Institute has found that one in three adults globally is obese.

Around a third of the world’s adults are obese, and since 1980 the number of obese people in developing countries has more than tripled, from 250m to 904m, according to a report by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). The implication of this is clear: obesity is not only a public health problem for rich countries.

Over the past thirty years, wealthier individuals in low-income countries have been eating more, leading more sedentary lifestyles, and consuming a diet richer in meat, fat and sugar than ever before.  The proportion of overweight and obese people in North Africa, the Middle East and Latin America is now about the same as in Europe and North America. This places hundreds of thousands of people in these regions at heightened risk of heart disease and diabetes, many of whom will not have access to adequate medical care and advice. According to the World Health Organisation, for instance, 80 per cent of diabetes deaths occur in low to middle income countries, and by 2030 diabetes is projected to be the seventh leading cause of death worldwide.

Meanwhile, the World Food Programme estimates that 784m go hungry, and the ODI reports that a third of infants worldwide are stunted due to malnutrition. Just as obesity isn't a rich world problem, nor is hunger confined to low-income countries: according to Oxfam, around half a million people in the UK are dependent on food banks. There is more than enough food being produced to feed everyone sufficiently (in 2009 the equivalent of 2830 calories per person per day, according to ODI) – the problem is how food is being distributed and consumed. Obesity and hunger are interlinked: the more meat people consume, the harder it is to feed an expanding population.

The ODI suggests the time has come for stronger policymaking to educate people on nutrition, and influence their food choices. More needs to be done too, to tackle hunger: by combating poverty and improving food supply chains. Government interference in personal choices is never popular, particularly not when it comes to our dinner plates – but it’s hard to see what else can prevent an unprecedented public health crisis.


People in low to middle income countries are eating more fat, meat and sugar than ever before. Photo: Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.