Overweight and obese adults reaching almost a billion in developing countries, as numbers continue to grow in richer nations

3 January 2014
The number of overweight and obese adults in developing countries has ballooned from some 250 million to almost a billion. The figure is highlighted in a major new review from the Overseas Development Institute exposing the global scale and consequences of overweight and obesity and governments’ failure to address this growing crisis. 

The Future Dietsreport is a comprehensive analysis of public data about what the world eats. It highlights thatthe number of adults who are obese or overweight in the developing world more than tripled between 1980 and 2008 whilst in richer countries it also rose by over 200 million. In 2008 the figures sat at 904 million in developing countries compared to 557 million in rich countries.

ODI Research Fellow Steve Wiggins said: 

“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.”

Future Diets warns that governments are not doing enough to tackle the growing crisis, partly due to politicians’ reluctance to interfere at the dinner table, the powerful influence of farming and food lobbies and a large gap in public awareness of what constitutes a healthy diet.

The report’s author Steve Wiggins added:

“Governments have focused on public awareness campaigns, but evidence shows this is not enough. The lack of action stands in stark contrast to the concerted public actions taken to limit smoking in developed countries. Politicians need to be less shy about trying to influence what food ends up on our plates. The challenge is to make healthy diets viable whilst reducing the appeal of foods which carry a less certain nutritional value.”

The report cites successful examples of governments’ changing diets for the better, including:

  • In South Korea, policies that have led to an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption largely thanks to a publicity, social marketing and education campaign, including large-scale training of women in preparing traditional low-fat, high-vegetable meals.
  • In Denmark, Danish laws against trans-fatty acids which have made Danish McDonalds amongst the healthiest in the world.
  • In the UK, the introduction of rationing during World War II to ensure the poorest people were able to eat a balanced diet.

Analysis of existing data shows that, amongst others, since 1980 overweight and obesity rates have almost doubled in China and Mexico, and risen by a third in South Africa, which now has a higher rate than the United Kingdom.  Regionally North Africa, the Middle East and Latin America all have overweight and obese rates on a par with Europe.

One indicator of changing diets is an increase in the consumption of sugar. Sugar and sweetener consumption has risen by over a fifth per person globally from 1961 to 2009. Less than a third of the world’s countries are consuming under the recommended top limit of 50g of sugar a day per person, and 69 countries have average per capita sugar consumption of more than double this recommended upper limit. The world’s top sugar consumers include the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Costa Rica, and Mexico.

Fat consumption is also an issue. Amongst developing countries the highest consumption of fat is in East Asia and Southern Africa, however industrialised countries still have much higher levels of fat consumption – often more than double.

Worryingly, despite a 50 per cent increase in the amount of food sourced from animals and a doubling in the quantity of fruit and vegetables being harvested, the report also notes that one in eight people (852 million) in poor countries still do not have enough food to satisfy their basic needs.