Overweight People In Developing World Outnumber Those In Rich Countries

Jan 3, 2014
Originally published on January 6, 2014 8:06 am

People are getting fatter around the world. And the problem is growing most rapidly in developing countries, researchers reported Friday.

"Over the last 30 years, the number of people who are overweight and obese in the developing world has tripled," says Steve Wiggins, of the Overseas Development Institute in London.

One-third of adults globally are now overweight compared with fewer than 23 percent in 1980, the report found. And the number of overweight and obese people in the developing world now far overshadows the number in rich countries.

"As countries go from being low-income to middle-income, and heading towards high-income, people earn more [money], and they can eat the foods that they find tasty," says Wiggins, who co-authored the report.

Many foods people find tasty are also often the most fattening. Globalization has made high-calorie snack foods readily available at low cost almost everywhere.

Take Mexico, for instance, which Wiggins calls a "poster child" for the global obesity problem.

"If you walk into a Mexican village store," he says, "you'll be confronted with lots of tasty offerings of potato chips, nice cookies with lots of fat and sugar in them and lots of sweetened carbonated drinks — all kinds of stuff, which is terrific in small quantities, but not when you start to eat it in large quantities."

In 1980, less than 40 percent of Mexican women were overweight. By 2008, almost 70 percent were.

In some Pacific Island nations, more than 90 percent of men are now considered overweight. The Middle East is also seeing a boom in chubbiness.

"It's something like 3 out of every 4 adult Egyptian women are now overweight or obese," Wiggins says.

This rapid growth in waist sizes poses huge challenges for health systems, especially those that are already overburdened in poorer countries.

Excessive consumption of fat, salt and sugar are "significant contributory factors to some cancers, cardiovascular disease and diabetes," the report noted. These diseases are costly to emerging economies, not only because of increased health care expenses, but also because of lost productivity.

"It's a personal and societal problem of considerable magnitude," Wiggins says.

Reversing this global trend, he says, could be accomplished with small changes to people's diets. In particular, public health campaigns could encourage families to substitute fruits and vegetables for high-calorie snacks.

But, the report concludes, there's been little political will in developing nations — where workers are finally enjoying a bit of disposable income — to tell people what they should or shouldn't be eating.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Obesity is becoming a major health problem in the developing world. A new report says that over the last three decades, diets in low and middle income countries have changed significantly. Now, almost a billion people in the developing world are overweight. More from NPR's Jason Beaubien.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: As a result of globalization, high calorie, cheap snack food's now readily available almost everywhere. Take Mexico, for instance, which Steve Wiggins, one of the authors of the report, calls a poster child for the global obesity problem.

STEVE WIGGINS: Even in a Mexican village, if you walk into a Mexican village store, you'll be confronted with lots of tasty offerings of potato chips and nice cookies with lots of fat and sugar in them and lots of, you know, sweetened carbonated drinks. All kinds of stuff which is terrific in small quantities, but not if you start to eat it in large quantities.

BEAUBIEN: In 1980, less than 40 percent of Mexican women were overweight. By 2008, almost 70 percent were. This is according to a new report from the Overseas Development Institute in London. It found that more than a third of all adults on the planet are now overweight compared to fewer than 23 percent in 1980. And the number of obese individuals in the developing world now far overshadows the number in rich nations.

WIGGINS: As countries go from being low income to middle income and heading towards being high income, people earn more, they can eat the foods that they find tasty.

BEAUBIEN: In some Pacific Island nations, more than 90 percent of adults are now considered overweight. Obesity is also becoming a major problem among upwardly mobile Africans and it's affecting people in the Arab world.

WIGGINS: Some parts of the Middle East, such as Egypt, are now running extremely high rates of overweight and obese people. And it's something like 3 out of every 4 adult female Egyptians, Egyptian women, are now overweight or obese.

BEAUBIEN: The report notes that excessive consumption of fat, salt and sugar are significant contributory factors to some cancers, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Overeating poses huge challenges to countries that already had weak or overburdened health systems. It's costly to these emerging economies in that it drives up healthcare expenses while driving down productivity. Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.