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As new economies boom and global efforts to eradicate malnutrition gain traction, world hunger has dropped 17 percent since 1990, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).
But progress on that front has been countered by a burgeoning health crisis that many consider a curse of plenty. As diets diverge globally between the haves and have-nots, the world is shifting to a new front in the global war on malnutrition: obesity.
The number of overweight and obese adults in the developing world has expanded by more than 260 percent since 1980, according to new data from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). There are now over 900 million obese or overweight people in the developing world — up from about 250 million in 1980.
The study’s authors emphasize that obesity and other derivatives of poor nutrition — collectively termed hidden hunger — have become increasingly important issues as traditional hunger has eroded. The ODI found increased consumption of meats, sugars, fats and oils across the globe and noted that “increasingly, the concern is less about macronutrition and more about micronutrition.”
Analysts also highlight a growing disparity within developing nations that still have many people without enough to eat. The WFP says 842 million go hungry daily.
“The world is bifurcating into a group of people who have too much and a group of people who consume too little,” said John Hoddinott, a senior research fellow with the International Food Policy Research Institute. “And its more marked in the developing world because chronic undernutrition remains much more prevalent.”
There are now nearly identical percentages of overweight and obese people in Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East as in Europe — 57 to 58 percent.
That obesity has become the fastest-growing chronic disease in the world will have “alarming” public-health consequences, said Steve Wiggins, an ODI research fellow and a lead author of the report. “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 health care systems.”
While the causes behind this dramatic rise in obesity are complex and disputed, globalization is a popular culprit. Food-policy analysts, however, admit there is a lot of educated guesswork involved in tracing globalization’s many consequences.
“If you ask five economists for their views on how globalization affects diets around the world, you’re going to get at least 10 different opinions,” said John Hoddinott.
A prevailing theory blames the fast-food industry — which, by minimizing the costs of distributing high-calorie, poor-nutrition food around the developing world, has spurred the obesity epidemic. The proliferation of global snack brands and international advertising campaigns aimed at inspiring appetites for unhealthful foods has coupled with low levels of nutrition education in these countries as well.
But globalization has improved access to fresh fruits and vegetables in temperate climates and curbed price hikes during famines and other hunger crises by allowing countries to import more produce as necessary.
Economists highlight complementary economic factors behind rising obesity too. In rapidly developing countries like China, with its booming industrial sector and high rate of urbanization, populations are abandoning traditional cost-minimizing grain-heavy diets in favor of meat, sugars and fats. Plus, as farmers leave the fields for better-paying factory jobs, they lead increasingly sedentary lifestyles.
If food-policy experts are divided about how to best explain the global obesity crisis, they are even less sure of how to solve it.
ODI points to expansive anti-smoking campaigns across the globe as model public-health success stories, but most analysts say the divergent, classist nature of poor nutrition in developing countries will require a more nuanced approach.
“If you have a country where you have some elements of undernutrition and obesity, broad-brush measures are very tricky to implement,” said Hoddinott. Whereas taxing cigarettes has been shown to cut down on smoking, a tax on meat products to curb overconsumption, for example, would backfire in stratified developing nations where some people — often children — consume too little animal protein.
In Guatemala, for instance, roughly 25 percent of the adult population is obese, while a startling 50 percent of children under the age of 2 are chronically undernourished.
“You have people who are obese and children who are undernourished, and they’re often in the same house,” said Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington.
Therein lies the challenge to solving obesity, an epidemic that even the wealthiest nations — notably the United States — has struggled to contain.
But there are exceptions to the broad-brush dilemma. Drewnowski points to micronutrient fortification of crops — a technique pioneered by the Gates Foundation — and investment in local farming systems as effective approaches to ameliorating hidden hunger.
And then there is the case of South Korea, which since 1998 has promoted its traditional, healthy cuisine — heavy in rice, fish and vegetables — through a nationwide campaign that includes the large-scale culinary training of Korean women. In tandem with rising incomes, the initiative has paid off: South Koreans ate 300 percent more servings of vegetables in 2009 than in 1980.
That approach is not applicable everywhere — many traditional diets are much less healthful — but it does lend credence to the argument that developing countries need not wilt before the imposing hand of globalization.
Wiggins cites the divergent paths of nations like Mexico, where a startling 30 percent of adults are obese, and South Korea as evidence that developing nations aren’t necessarily doomed.
“When you look at our report, the sufficient variety shows nothing is predetermined,” he said. “If you can have very different pathways, then globalization can clearly be shaped. We can make sure local outcomes are not determined by global forces.”
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