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Obesity is a weighty issue for almost 1bn in developing world

By RJ Whitehead , 06-Jan-2014

The number of overweight and obese adults in developing countries has ballooned from some 250m in 1980 to almost a billion today, with Indians forming a huge chunk of this number.

This figure is highlighted in a major new review by the UK’s Overseas Development Institute to expose the global scale and consequences of overweight and obesity, and what it calls governments’ failure to address this growing crisis. 

The Future Diets report is an analysis of public data detailing what the world eats. It selected five middle-income countries—India, China, Egypt, Peru and Thailand—as case studies to illustrate changes in dietary trends.

One in three overweight

The results highlight that the number of adults who are obese or overweight in the developing world more than tripled between 1980 and 2008, while in richer countries the figure has risen by over 200 million. One in three of the world’s adults are now overweight or obese, it found.

According to ODI research fellow Steve Wiggins, who authored the report, the growing rate of overweight and obesity in developing countries is alarming. 

On current trends, globally, we will see a huge increase in the number of people suffering certain types of cancer, diabetes, strokes and heart attacks, putting an enormous burden on public healthcare systems,” Wiggins said, warning governments that they are not doing enough to tackle the growing crisis. 

The percentage of obese and overweight in India rose from about 9% of the population in 1980 to 11% in 2008. 

"India's consumption of animal products is approaching that of China's in terms of its contribution to the average plate, but here the increase is almost entirely in milk consumption, with only limited increases for meat," the report said.

"Many Indians are vegetarian, avoiding beef or pork for cultural and religious reasons. The consumption of pulses remains relatively high in India, although it has been on the decline.”

Politicians fearful of meddling

Wiggins believes that the rise in obesity is partly due to politicians’ reluctance to interfere at the dinner table, along with the powerful influence of farming and food lobbies in the developing world and a large gap in public awareness of what constitutes a healthy diet.

Governments have focused on public awareness campaigns, but evidence shows this is not enough. The lack of action stands in stark contrast to the concerted public actions taken to limit smoking in developed countries

Politicians need to be less shy about trying to influence what food ends up on our plates. The challenge is to make healthy diets viable whilst reducing the appeal of foods which carry a less certain nutritional value.”

However, the report does cite some successful examples of governments’ changing diets for the better. In South Korea, for example, policies that have led to an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption largely thanks to a publicity, social marketing and education campaign, including large-scale training of women in preparing traditional low-fat, high-vegetable meals.

Analysis of existing data shows that, amongst others, since 1980 overweight and obesity rates have almost doubled in China.

One indicator of changing diets is an increase in the consumption of sugar. Sugar and sweetener consumption has risen by over one-fifth per person globally from 1961 to 2009. 

Fat consumption is also an issue. Among developing countries the highest consumption of fat is in East Asia, however industrialised countries still have much higher levels of fat consumption—often more than double.

Worryingly, despite a 50 per cent increase in the amount of food sourced from animals and a doubling in the quantity of fruit and vegetables being harvested, the report also notes that one in eight people (852m) in poor countries still do not have enough food to satisfy their basic needs.

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