The Fat Rich and the Thin Poor

On the same day that the Asian Development Bank and two other organizations announced that there are 578 million hungry people in Asia, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said people in the OECD's 30 member countries are fat and getting fatter at an alarming rate.

In a graphic indication of how sharp the divide remains between the developed and developing worlds, the OECD found, 50 percent or more of the people in member countries are overweight.

The OECD study, titled Obesity and the Economics of Prevention: Fit not Fat, says that since the 1980s, surveys in the wealthy nations have begun to record a "sharp acceleration in the rate of body mass index, which in many countries grew two to three times more rapidly than in the previous century."

"In the developed world, people per capita have greater purchasing power and their expenditure on food is a relatively smaller portion of their income," said Purushottam Mudbhary, chief of the policy assistance branch at the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok in an interview. "People in the developed world can afford to buy high quality food, animal protein, various kinds of fruits, eggs, meat, milk, dairy. Also this is an issue of how much physical activity they have." (See Chart below)

The efficient distribution of food is also problematical in much of the developing world, Mudbhary said.

Before 1980, the OECD study found, adult obesity rates in the developed countries were generally well below 10 percent. But since then, rates have doubled or tripled in many countries. At the top of the list, as expected, is the United States, with 34 percent of its population considered to be obese and 68 percent overweight. Mexico has a higher number of overweight people, with 70 percent of its adult population overweight but 30 percent obese.* New Zealand and Australia are not far behind. Australia, according to the report, has been growing fatter faster than any other country in the OECD over the last two decades. The proportion of people overweight is expected to rise another 15 percent by 2020.

A healthier diet keeps the developed Asian nations at the bottom although they are still in the unhealthy zone. Japan reports that 24 percent of its people are overweight, 3 percent obese. South Korea reports 31 percent of its people are overweight, 4 percent obese.

China reports 29 percent of their population are overweight, 2 percent obese, Indonesia 26 percent overweight, 1 percent obese. India reports that 16 percent of its people are overweight, only 1 percent obese, giving some idea of the skewed nature of nutrition distribution in the country. As Asia Sentinel reported on Sept. 23, for a vast proportion of the 150 million school children in India, their primary meal is a lunch subsidized by the Indian government. Up to 70 percent of low-income adolescent girls in India suffered from anemia because blood lost during menstrual cycles meant iron wasn't being replaced. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that 251 million people in India were malnourished in 2004-2006, the last year for which figures were available in a 2009 report.

China has made vast strides in cutting malnutrition, according to the same report. But still, 127 million people remained underfed during 2004-2006. Bangladesh had 46.2 million undernourished, Pakistan 36.5 million.

Accordingly, the ADB, the Food and Agriculture Administration and the International Fund for Agriculture announced they would join forces to attempt to tackle widespread hunger across Asia. Despite impressive gains, "The Asia and Pacific region is still home to some 578 million hungry people, some two-thirds of the world's hungry, so it is high time to move out of our comfort zones and forge new partnerships, collaborative arrangements, and networks with the single objective of achieving food for all," said ADB President Haruhiko Kuroda.

As much as US$120 billion must be invested in primary agriculture and downstream services, the three organizations said in a combined news release, to stave off hunger.

Meanwhile, in the developed world, one of the problems is that lots of fat people don't believe they're fat, according to a Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll published in early September. The poll found that 30 percent of people who are overweight think they are actually of "normal" size and 70 percent of obese people say they are merely overweight. Some 39 percent of morbidly obese people think they're overweight, but not obese. Many of those polled who did feel they were heavier than they should be cited lack of adequate exercise as the main reason, overeating second.

The OECD report says obesity has become an epidemic, "the result of multiple, complex and interacting dynamics, which have progressively converged to produce lasting changes in people's lifestyles. The supply and availability of food have changed remarkably in the second half of the 20th century, in line with major changes in food production technologies and an increasing and increasingly sophisticated use of promotion and persuasion."

Decreased physical activity at work, increased participation of women in the labor force, increasing levels of stress and job insecurity, longer working hours for some jobs, have all contributed directly or indirectly to the epidemic, the report says, along with government policies including urban planning policies that have left scant opportunities for physical exercise or have contributed to the rise of slums, "deprived and segregated urban areas that provide fertile grounds for the spread of unhealthy lifestyles and ill health."

The cost to society from obesity is enormous. The obese live an average of eight to 10 years less than those who eat less. The risk of death for an overweight person of average height increases by 30 percent for every additional 15 kg of weight. Health care expenditure for the obese is at least 25 percent higher than for those of normal weight.

"In 10 European countries, the odds of disability, defined as a limitation in activities of daily living, are nearly twice as large among the obese as in normal weight persons."

The obese also suffer because they are less likely to be hired into the work force. "White women are especially disadvantaged in this respect, the report says. The obese earn up to 18 percent less than those of normal weight, they tend to miss work more often, they are less productive and they run up more disability payments.

* The story originally showed that Mexico had more overweight people than the US. But the OECD bar graph didn't compare like to like. The organization has supplied a new, corrected graph. It appears below.