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3 January 2014

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.

By Sophie McBain

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.

 

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