New research suggests the image from the 1980s of an emaciated Ethiopian child may no longer be an appropriate symbol for world poverty. In a reversal that's occurred in the U.S. too, an overweight child may be a more representative image. Why? Because the obesity rate in developing nations is now almost double that of developed countries, according to a new study from British think tank Overseas Development Institute. The number of overweight or obese individuals in the world’s poorest nations more than tripled in the last three decades, from 250 million in 1980 to 904 million in 2008, researchers found. Globally, one in three adults—1.46 billion people—was overweight or obese in 2008, a 23 percent increase since 1980.
Don't be so quick, however, to lay all the blame for these dubious statistics at the feet of Western junk food companies that ship their poison around the world. Global trade isn’t primarily to blame, some experts say, but rather an overall improvement in quality of life of the poor. World hunger certainly hasn't ended either.
“Increased obesity in developing counties likely has many of the same causes as earlier increased obesity in the United States and Europe,” says Parke Wilde, associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “It is related to broad trends in income growth, urbanization, and social change, leading to higher total food energy consumption, increased consumption of highly palatable foods with sugar, salt, and fat, and increasingly sedentary lifestyles.”
Wilde says globalization and trade are often made out to be the bogeymen in conversations about the declining nutrition of populations abroad. One example is the assertion made a few years ago by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy that the spike in Mexico’s obesity levels coincided with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement of the 1990s, which opened up trade across the U.S.-Mexico border. But Wilde says other factors also coincide with the 12 percent increase in obese and overweight Mexicans between 2000 and 2006, namely urbanization and rising incomes.
“Sometimes I fear that health advocates and local food advocates are used as rhetorical muscle for trade protectionism, when really openness to international trade frequently makes sense for both health and the environment,” he says.
More sensible solutions to combating the global rise in obesity, Wilde says, include pressuring governments to institute common-sense public health initiatives. The authors of the ODI study appear to agree: The report highlights South Korea, which has seen a 300 percent increase in fruit consumption and a 10 percent increase in vegetables following a concerted government campaign to encourage a return to healthier, more traditional cooking.
Wilde concedes that “the replacement of traditional foodways with quick-service restaurant food and highly processed grocery foods” has played a role in the global public health crisis, but he says this is true whether the fast food comes from an international brand such as McDonald's or a local street vendor.
So while it might not be the global popularity of the Big Mac that's tipping the collective scales per se, there's still room for food activists to improve the quality of products that U.S. companies are shipping abroad, and to work with world leaders to set smart food and nutrition policy.