The ‘alarming’ rise in overweight and obese adults in developing countries is growing into a huge public health burden, says one of the authors of a new report from a UK think tank.
The 130-page report, Future Diets, from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), which shows a comprehensive analysis of what the world eats, estimates one in three adults around the world is now either overweight or obese, and criticizes governments for failing to tackle the crisis.
It describes how in developing countries, the number of overweight and obese adults has risen from 250 million to nearly a billion in the last 30 years, and numbers are also continuing to rise in richer nations, growing by around 200 million to nearly 600 million over the same period.
By analyzing existing data, the authors show how since 1980, overweight and obesity rates have nearly doubled in China and Mexico, and risen by a third in South Africa, which has now overtaken the UK in the obesity stakes.
And in terms of regions, overweight and obesity rates in North Africa, the Middle East and Latin America have caught up with Europe.
The implications for public health are huge, as co-author Steve Wiggins, an ODI research fellow, explains:
“The growing rates of overweight and obesity in developing countries are 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.”
He and fellow author Sharada Keats, also a research fellow with the ODI, suggest one reason governments are failing to tackle the world obesity epidemic is because politicians are reluctant to interfere with people’s eating habits.
The powerful influence of farming and food lobbies, coupled with lack of public awareness as to what makes a healthy diet, are other reasons, they say.
While governments have focused on campaigns to raise public awareness, evidence shows this is not enough, says the report, which contrasts the “timid” policies attempted so far to change diets, to the much bolder, and successful, campaigns to limit smoking in developing nations.
The report notes:
“Looking at the range of policies on offer, it seems that regulation and taxation are the most effective policies for diet, but these are precisely the policies that are least palatable to both the public and politicians.”
Steve Wiggins urges politicians to be “less shy” about trying to influence what people eat, explaining that:
“The challenge is to make healthy diets viable whilst reducing the appeal of foods which carry a less certain nutritional value.”
It is possible to effect changes, says the report, citing examples of where governments have succeeded in changing people’s dietary habits:
- The UK’s introduction of rationing in World War II ensured the poorest people were able to eat a balanced diet.
- South Korea’s social marketing and education campaign, including widespread training of women in how to prepare traditional low fat meals high in vegetables, has resulted in a shift toward higher public consumption of fruits and vegetables.
- Danish laws outlawing trans-fats has made their McDonalds among the healthiest in in the world.
The rise in sugar consumption is one significant change that has taken place in people’s diets. Between 1961 and 2009, sugar and sweetener consumption has risen by over 20%.
Today, the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Costa Rica, and Mexico are among the countries with the highest per capital consumption of sugar in the world.
Another big change in diet that has occurred over a similar timeframe is fat consumption.
In the developing world, the highest per capital fat consumption rates are in East Asia and Southern Africa, but these are not even half that of industrialized nations.
The report also highlights another worrying sign: even though the quantity of fruits and vegetables harvested today is double that of earlier decades, and the amount of food that comes from animals has gone up by 50%, over 850 million people in poorer nations – one in every eight human beings on the planet – do not have enough food to meet their basic needs.
In February 2013, UK doctors urged the government to tax sugary drinks and ban fast foods near schools in a bid to tackle the rising obesity crisis.