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Development, Public Health, and Nutrition

May 30, 2014

mcdchinaA study commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and published by the World Health Organization earlier this week reached some starting public health conclusions. The study found that the proportion of overweight and obese people increased in every country in the world between 1980 and 2013, and that nutrition-related diseases, including diabetes and pancreatic cancer, are also increasing. The report, published in the Lancet yesterday, found that globally, 36.9 percent of men and 38.0 percent of women are now overweight, increases from 28.8 percent of men and 29.8 percent of women in 1980. The study found that the fastest rate of growth in the prevalence of overweight and obesity was in the developing world. And perhaps most alarmingly, the report could not identify a single national success story—a country in which the proportion of overweight and obesity held steady or declined over the study period.

The study’s lead authors, Christopher Murray of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, observed that, “It’s pretty grim…When we realized that not a single country has had a significant decline in obesity, that tells you how hard a challenge this is.”

It’s long been noted that economic development tends to be accompanied by a change in diets, as wealthier individuals tend to eat more meat and processed foods high in salt and sugar, and drink more sweetened drinks like soda. Urbanization also results in shifts in the types of work performed by large portions of the population, moving from outdoor physical labor (often on farms), to indoor, sedentary labor (often in offices).

If the trend observed in this week’s study continues, the benefits of economic growth in the global south could be offset by sharp increases in the cost public health necessary to treat diet-related diseases.

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