Poorest countries have high levels of both obesity and malnutrition

Malnutrition involves consuming nutrients that are either too much or not enough in a way that it causes health problems. The health issue has been a longstanding predicament worldwide, and now, a new study shows that a third of the poorest countries in the world are facing high levels of obesity, as well as undernutrition.

The study, which was published in The Lancet, highlights the worldwide problem of malnutrition, whether it may be obesity or undernourishment, which leads to various health problems. The study also sheds light on common factors contributing to malnutrition, such as global access to ultra-processed foods and less physical activity.

Image Credit: Tortoon / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Tortoon / Shutterstock

Rapid changes in food systems

Further, the researchers reiterate that a new approach is required to help reduce undernutrition and obesity at the same time since both issues have become increasingly tied due to fast changes in the world’s food choices. The issue is rampant specifically in low- and middle-income countries.

Malnutrition and obesity can drive many effects since they are tied to poor health in children as well as adults. Due to the speed in changes in food systems, more people face problems with both types of malnutrition throughout their lifetime. With the exposure to extremes of malnutrition, it magnifies many harmful health effects.

"We are facing a new nutrition reality where major food system changes have led the poorest countries to have high levels of overweight and obesity along with undernutrition," Barry M. Popkin, W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina.

"Our research shows that overweight and obesity levels of at least 20% among adults are found in all low-income countries. Furthermore, the double burden of high levels of both undernutrition and overweight occurs primarily in the lowest-income countries -- a reality that is driven by the modern food system,” he added.

The modern food systems prevent such countries and people living in it to consume safe, cheap, and healthy diets, which are sustainable and accessible,

Malnutrition by the numbers

There are about 2.3 billion children and adults who are overweight across the globe. Among children, an estimated 150 million are stunted or having prevented from developing or growing properly. The study also explored the trends behind the connection, known as the double burden of malnutrition.

In the study, one in three of such countries had overlapping types of malnutrition (45 of 123 countries in the 1990s, and 40 of 126 countries in the 2010s), specifically in South Asia, East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Pacific.

More alarming findings show that more than 15 percent of people had wasted, more than 20 percent of women were too thin, while more than 20 percent of people were overweight, and 30 percent of children had stunted growth, according to the survey data conducted by the group from low- and middle countries in the 1990s and 2010s.

Further, about 14 countries in the 2010s with the lowest incomes across the globe had recently had a double burden of malnutrition compared to what they were in the 1990s. The results also show that fewer of third world countries with the highest incomes were impacted.

The researchers added that the availability of ultra-processed foods has been linked to weight gain, which affects mostly infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Such changes include the lack of availability of fresh food markets and the increasing access to supermarkets.

Also, the trend of being undernourished early in life followed by becoming obese or overweight from childhood and in the future may be associated with a higher risk of developing chronic diseases or non-communicable diseases, including hypertension, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

The journal has three other related-papers that build on the first paper’s work, exploring the double burden of malnutrition and its health impacts.

Journal reference:

Popkin, B., Corvalan, C., and Grummer-Strawn, L. (2019). Dynamics of the double burden of malnutrition and the changing nutrition reality. The Lancet. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(19)32497-3/fulltext

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Written by

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Angela is a nurse by profession and a writer by heart. She graduated with honors (Cum Laude) for her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the University of Baguio, Philippines. She is currently completing her Master's Degree where she specialized in Maternal and Child Nursing and worked as a clinical instructor and educator in the School of Nursing at the University of Baguio.


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