Fighting hunger today could help prevent obesity tomorrow
Unless nutrition improves, healthcare costs are expected to soar
11 February 2004, Rome -- Reducing hunger and undernourishment in pregnant women and children could prevent them from becoming overweight and obese, and reduce associated health costs, in later life, according to a study released today by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The study pulls together a growing body of empirical evidence that suggests that hunger during pregnancy "programmes" foetal tissues to get the most out of the food energy available, leading to overnourishment in adult life when coupled with greater food availability and a more sedentary lifestyle.
Many developing countries are currently facing this situation and the impact on their health situation could be dramatic. Hunger today and more food availability tomorrow will mean that many will shift from hunger to obesity and become vulnerable to one of the related non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as diabetes and coronary heart disease.
Trend toward unhealthy diets
Diets today, and in the foreseeable future, do not comply with dietary recommendations made by a consultation of health experts convened by FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO) last year. For example, the study says, 36 percent of all countries in the world already have populations consuming above the recommended maximum level of 300 milligrams per person a day of cholesterol, more than twice the rate of the early 1960s.
Likewise, 34 percent of all countries exceed the 30 percent threshold of fat in the diet, compared to 18 percent forty years ago. FAO's outlook to 2030 suggests that these indicators will continue to deteriorate as more than 40 percent of the additional calories consumed in the future will come from fats.
The double burden of hunger and obesity
Because of falling real prices for food, rising incomes and rapidly increasing urbanization, diets in many developing countries are approaching energy and protein intake levels that have for long been limited to consumers in developed countries, the study says.
These ongoing changes in nutrition mean that a growing number of developing countries face the 'double burden' of under- and over-nutrition and their associated economic and healthcare costs. According to FAO's outlook to 2030, this double burden can be expected to increase rapidly.
Obesity is one of the main causes of non-communicable diseases. The economic and healthcare costs of NCDs are already high in many developed countries. In the US alone that cost has risen to more than $120 billion annually.
High healthcare costs will hit developing countries hard
According to the study, the economic problems associated with nutrition transition will be felt more strongly in developing countries. In developed countries, obesity, diabetes and other NCDs account for a heavy slice of healthcare costs. While people in more advanced countries may be able to cope with the increased costs, the story is very different in developing countries where many people will not be able to pay for medical treatment. Left untreated, people in developing countries will suffer from obesity and NCDs tomorrow as they suffer from hunger today.
The message is clear, says the report: All efforts that help fight hunger today and improve the nutritional situation of women during their reproductive age, have the potential to yield an extra dividend tomorrow. This is particularly important in developing countries, where "prenatal programming" is likely to lead to overweight, obesity and increased susceptibility to NCDs in a less austere later life.
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