Obesity on the rise in poor countries due to the cost of healthy food

Rising obesity rates in developing countries, both in urban and rural areas, are mainly due to large price disparities between healthy and unhealthy foods, as well as the lack of availability of a wide variety of nutritional options. According to a literature review published by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in its Research collectionimportant conclusions can be drawn.

“Although there are price differences between healthy and unhealthy foods in all countries of the world, the difference is much more pronounced in poorer countries. Furthermore, high income inequalities within countries are associated with a higher prevalence of obesity,” says Joyce Njoro, IFAD Senior Technical Specialist in Nutrition.

“If we are to curb rising obesity rates in developing countries, we need structural solutions that address the functioning of food systems. It’s alarming to see that 3 billion people in the world cannot afford a healthy diet,” says Njoro.

“Preventing obesity in developing countries requires a comprehensive approach that addresses cultural norms, raises awareness of health risks, and promotes the production, availability and affordability of healthy food”.

Research on obesity in developing countries

IFAD and Wageningen University’s Center for Development Innovation conducted research by reviewing hundreds of peer-reviewed studies and analyzing data from five representative countries (Bolivia, Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria and Zambia), with the aim of have a better understanding of the factors that contribute to rising obesity rates in developing countries. It is crucial to analyze what kind of interventions, from a food systems perspective, are effective in addressing this global public health problem.

In recent years, obesity rates in developing countries have risen sharply, approaching the levels seen in high-income countries. Various factors have been identified as drivers of this problem in developing countries. Among them, it is worth noting:

  • The price of the food: In developing countries, the price gap between healthy foods, which tend to be more expensive, and unhealthy foods, which tend to be cheaper, is even greater than in rich countries. This results in an estimated 3 billion people unable to afford to eat a healthy diet. According to a study reviewed by Headey in 2019, it was found that in poor countries it is 11.66 times more expensive to obtain a calorie from eggs than a calorie obtained from starchy foods such as grains, vegetables or legumes, while obtaining it from sugary snacks are only 2.92 times more expensive than starchy ones. In developed countries, the disparity is significantly lower. Getting a calorie from eggs is 2.6 times more expensive than getting one from starchy foods and 1.43 times more expensive from sugary snacks.
  • The diet: According to studies by Ford et al., (2017) and Malik and Hu (2022), an increase in the consumption of sugary drinks has been observed in developing countries. In addition, there has been an increase in the global volume of packaged food sales per capita, from 67.7 kg per capita in 2005 to 76.9 kg in 2017. Reference is often made to processed foods which generally have a high content of di added or free sugars, saturated and trans fats, salt and a high energy density. On the other hand, they tend to be lower in protein, dietary fiber, and micronutrients.
  • Culture: In many developing countries, it is considered desirable for children to be overweight, as it is associated with good health and wealth. Furthermore, the consumption of unhealthy foods can be seen as a symbol of prestige in some communities. Energy expenditure in different cultures can be influenced by the culture itself. In some cultures, physical inactivity may be associated with high social status, leading to lower energy expenditure.
  • The genre: In most developing countries, women are more likely to be overweight or obese than men. In a study focusing on low- and middle-income countries conducted by Ford et al., (2017), several reasons were identified that could explain the gender disparity in the prevalence of overweight and obesity. There are several reasons that contribute to the weight difference between people. Some of these include unique physiological responses during the first few years of life, hormonal responses to energy expenditure, pregnancy-related weight gain, lower levels of physical activity, lifelong depression and economic circumstances, and differences in sociocultural factors, such as body size ideal and acceptability of physical activity.
  • Economic growth: It is commonly observed that as a country develops economically, the prevalence of overweight or obesity tends to increase. This correlates with a decrease in physical activity levels and an increase in sedentary lifestyles. There is evidence suggesting a relationship between income inequality and the prevalence of overweight and obesity. Studies show that no matter how prosperous a country is, the greater the income inequality domestically, the more likely it is to find high rates of obesity. This shows us how the issue of economic equality can have a significant impact on public health and weight issues.

The article also examines interventions being implemented in developing countries to combat high rates of obesity. These measures include strategies such as changes in food packaging, labeling and advertising, as well as taxes on certain products and import duties on certain foods, and their respective effectiveness is evaluated.

With information from ifad.org

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