We still think of obesity as a problem which affects wealthy nations, but new data in a report from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) shows there were nearly twice as many obese people in poor countries (estimated at 904 million in 2008) as in industrialised nations (557 million). This reflects the greater number of people living in the developing world.
The report’s author warns that the growing numbers of overweight and obese people in poor countries will mean a huge rise in cases of certain types of cancer, diabetes, stroke and heart attack. As reported in the Guardian, the author stresses that this will put “an enormous burden on public healthcare systems”.
Tackling both obesity and lack of nutrition in Zambia
In order to tackle the growing crisis, the report calls for governments to do much more to raise public awareness about healthy nutrition and also to curb the powerful influence of farming and food lobbies. As populations become more urban, advertising also plays its part with buyers increasingly exposed to messages promoting processed foods rich in fat, salt and sugar.
Generally, as countries become wealthier, higher incomes change diet. Families replace low-cost starchy staples like rice, wheat, maize, potatoes and cassava, with more meat, fish, dairy, fats and sugars. However, rising obesity trends are not inevitable and government-backed initiatives can bolster and promote healthy eating norms. In South Korea for example, campaigns showing how to prepare traditional low-fat meals have raised the profile of healthy nutrition and the average South Korean now eats three times more fruit and 10% more vegetables than thirty years ago.
But while the promotion of healthy eating by governments is an important factor in improving diets, among low-income nations many countries still face the paradox of dealing both with rising obesity and those who are stunted and chronically undernourished. In Zambia, for example, the average protein intake among adults is still less than 50 grams per day, the amount required by a moderately active person. And while more than 8% of young children were overweight in 2005–2012 (according to the World Health Organisation), this compared with more than 45% of under-fives who were stunted. These statistics show that for many families, affording a nutritious diet is simply out of reach.
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