The developing world's new burden: obesity

It is a bitter irony that as developing countries continue their efforts to reduce hunger, some are also facing the opposing problem of obesity. Obesity carries a higher incidence of chronic illness including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. And while some of the poor are becoming plumper, they are not necessarily better fed. Obesity often masks underlying deficiencies in vitamins and minerals.

"We believe obesity is a significant problem that needs to be dealt with, along with the problem of the underfed," says Prakash Shetty, Chief of FAO's Nutrition Planning, Assessment and Evaluation service.

Just a few years ago, such a statement was rare. Experts hesitated to draw attention to obesity when so many lives were crippled by hunger -- and out of a total of 815 million hungry people around the world almost 780 million are in developing countries. But startling data released last year by the Worldwatch Institute challenged conventional wisdom: For the first time, the number of overweight individuals worldwide rivals those who are underweight. And sadly, developing nations have joined the ranks of countries encumbered by obesity.



A 1999 United Nations study found obesity in all developing regions, and growing rapidly, even in countries where hunger exists. In China, the number of overweight people jumped from less than 10 percent to 15 percent in just three years. In Brazil and Colombia, the figure hovers around 40 percent -- a level comparable to a number of European countries. Even sub-Saharan Africa, where most of the world's hungry live, is seeing an increase in obesity, especially among urban women. In all regions, obesity seems to grow as income increases.

Three problems, one solution: good nutrition
The existence of obesity in the developing world is not a surprise to FAO. "We already knew that the world produced enough food to feed everyone," remarks Barbara Burlingame, Senior Officer in FAO's Nutrition Impact Assessment and Evaluation Group. "Unfortunately, food doesn't always get to the people who need it most." Hunger is one result. Obesity is another.

In addition, practically all of the hungry and many of the overweight are weakened by a third type of malnutrition: A lack of vitamins and minerals referred to as micronutrient deficiency.

"The thinking used to be that if people get enough energy in their diets, the micronutrients will take care of themselves," says Dr Burlingame. "But increasingly people are eating larger quantities of cheap food that fill the stomach but still leave the body without those micronutrients."

A couple sits down to a meal in China. Traditional diets offer better nutrition than most imported foods. (FAO/8513/F. Mattioli)



Though data on obesity in the developing world are limited, preliminary studies indicate that some of the same nutrient deficiencies in the underfed also afflict the overfed. Two of the most common are iron deficiency anaemia and vitamin A deficiency, which continues to cause widespread blindness in children under five years old.

FAO maintains that a sound approach to nutrition must focus on quality as well as quantity. "One of our most important roles is to promote a diverse diet including traditional foods, which are generally balanced and high in nutrition, " says Dr Shetty. To read about the reasons behind obesity in the developing world, click here.


January 2002

FAO links:

FAO fact sheet on malnutrition
FAO news story: Food needs: How much is enough?
FAO publication: Human nutrition in the developing world
FAO publication: Preventing micronutrient malnutrition
State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) 2001
SOFI 2000: Spectrum of malnutrition
FAO's Food and Nutrition Division
Focus Archive

External links:

Worldwatch Institute: Underfed and Overfed: The Global Epidemic of Malnutrition
International Food Policy Research Institute: Emerging and reemerging issues in developing countries: obesity
BBC article: Pacific islanders are world's fattest