The Paradox of Malnutrition: Obesity in Developing Countries


SEATTLE — While the urbanization of the developing world may be helping resource-poor communities rise above the poverty line, urbanization has also caused a rise in obesity in developing countries.

The globalization of food markets in developing countries has contributed to the access of low-cost and high-calorie, processed foods. Developing communities with strengthening economies are also susceptible to marketing ploys that may persuade households to consume cheap food in excess, which may lead to obesity, a form of malnutrition.

Currently, 44 percent of countries are experiencing extremely high levels of malnutrition, according to the 2016 Global Nutrition Report. Malnutrition is a chronic condition defined as having low levels of vital micronutrients, such as iron, vitamin D, and thiamine–which applies to both those who are undernourished and those who are obese.

According to the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 795 million people suffer from hunger, and 98 percent of these people live in developing countries.

Meanwhile, one-third of the world’s population is considered overweight, or obese. According to the Atlantic, 62 percent of those people live in developing countries. In Libya and Lebanon, the prevalence of obesity and adults who are overweight has reached a staggering 68.7 percent.

Treating obesity in developing countries has largely been neglected due to the focus on undernourishment by hunger-relief programs and other humanitarian aid resources. However, the effects of obesity can be just as devastating and debilitating as the effects of chronic hunger.

The pandemic of obesity in the developing world may lead to a rise in health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer–diseases that the health infrastructure in developing countries is not currently equipped to handle. Obesity may also reverse progress that has been made to lift those living in developing regions out of poverty. For example, living with diabetes in China results in an annual 16.3 percent loss of income, according to the Global Nutrition Report.

Treating obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes, is something that those barely living above the poverty line can hardly afford. Therefore, efforts to prevent and reverse the effects of malnutrition in developing countries should be equally directed toward obesity and undernourishment.

Addressing the “dual burden” of malnutrition can be difficult due to the contradictory approaches of treating the undernourished and treating those who struggle with being overweight. An integrated treatment for malnutrition may be more cohesive in reducing the prevalence of both forms of malnutrition.

For example, high quality diets that are nutrient-rich, yet low in fat, sodium and sugar may benefit either undernutrition or overnutrition, according to the Population Reference Bureau. In addition to diet, community nutrition programs may benefit by encouraging physical activity and adequate protein intake to contribute to a healthy body composition.

In addition to adjusting nutrition-based health advice to address all forms of malnutrition, turning recommendations into legislation is vital to the health of those living in the developing world. Policies to monitor and regulate the food market and to increase the accessibility of healthy food would help address obesity in developing countries as the influence of urbanization increases.

By investing more in the treatment of malnutrition and mobilizing government leaders and policy makers, the goal set by world leaders in September 2015 to end malnutrition by 2030 looks promising.

Daniela N. Sarabia

Photo: Flickr


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