KINGSTON, R.I. -- The world is round and so are a growing number of its inhabitants. In fact, obesity is spreading at an alarming rate, not just in industrialized countries but in developing countries, where obesity often sits next to malnutrition.
"This places an additional economic burden on poorer countries that they can ill afford, " according to Marquisa LaVelle, a biological anthropologist at the University of Rhode Island and organizer of a symposium on the worldwide epidemic of obesity for the American Association for the Advancement of Science meetings in Boston.
Scientists are documenting the global "fat " problem from China, to Australia, to Egypt, to remote islands of the Pacific, and beyond. In 1995, there were an estimated 200 million obese adults and 22 million children worldwide.
By 2000, the number had skyrocketed to more than 300 million. In developing countries, it is now estimated that more than 115 million people suffer from obesity-related problems, including Type II Diabetes, heart disease and obesity-related cancers.
In the U.S. alone, child obesity has increased by more than 1 percent per year over the past decade with an estimated $99.2 billion in future health care costs, according to the National Institutes of Health.
"We’re looking at a ticking time bomb of chronic disease," LaVelle says, noting that a recent World Health Organization study found that obesity is now estimated to have increased 50 percent over the past seven to ten years.
"This rapid change cannot be explained by a lack of personal willpower or changes in the human gene pool," the URI scientist says, "because it is happening so fast and has become so widespread. Rather the epidemic is part of a century-long trend of increased growth in height, weight and earlier puberty in children that has been associated with transitions to industrialized lifestyles."
For example, in 1860 girls in England reached puberty between 14 and 15. Now the average age is 12.3. LaVelle studied three generations of women –grandmothers, mothers, and daughters -- in Michigan and found that the age of puberty had decreased within families by a full two years since 1890. There is also a correlation with fatness. In this case, girls who reach puberty earlier are likely to be chubbier and have heavier children, both sons and daughters.
Among poorer nations, adoption of industrialized foods and food preferences, together with drastically decreased physical activity levels are the basic ingredients for accelerating obesity, especially among children and adolescents, says LaVelle.
Within developing countries, shifts to urbanization, non-manual labor, high calorie foods, and higher levels of sedentary living are all contributing to this growing problem, often in conjunction with undernourished segments of the population. "We assume in developing countries that the problem is one of under-nutrition rather than over-nutrition, but many countries now have both," says LaVelle.
LaVelle and Maciej Henneberg of the University of Adelaide Medical School in South Australia, found emerging weight problems in both South Africa and Central Australia. They studied two related groups of children in South Africa; those living in the city of Cape Town and those living in distant and poorer rural areas. LaVelle and Henneberg found emergent overweight and obesity rates among the Cape Town children compared to high rates of underweight children in the rural areas.
LaVelle notes that cultural dynamics affecting obesity can be more environmental than economic. In South Africa, overall environmental differences between the two regions were more important in predicting child weight than family income, so that even children of comparatively poorer parents in Cape Town were fatter than the children of well-off parents in the poorer rural areas.
In Australia, LaVelle and Henneberg are studying a native community located in the Central desert. Formerly hunters and foragers living on wild foods, the community was settled by the government in the 1960’s and has grown to the point where hunting has become impossible. "I don’t think there’s a wild animal within 50 kilometers there," LaVelle said. In the past, people often walked for days hunting bush food – a diet low in fat.
Today their diet consists of packaged and processed foods, imported by truck, while lifestyles of adults are sedentary due to high unemployment. Compared with earlier studies, children now living in the community are heavier than their grandparents at the same age, but not taller. Obesity has become an increasing problem among the adults, despite the fact that many of the younger children are underweight.
"In my opinion, we need to think about this problem in cultural environmental context," says LaVelle, "including a serious review of available healthy fast foods in schools and ways to build more physical activity as a normal part of living. I live three miles from the URI campus and would walk or bike to work but there are no sidewalks or bike paths."
Cities, towns, and buildings could be designed to help people lead healthier lives. For instance, the CDC recommends making stairs and stairwells more accessible and attractive to use. Since young adults ages 14 to 20 are the age group that is highly sedentary, with the highest rates of increasing obesity in the U.S., we should probably design more activity into school programs. "I personally would like to see playgrounds for adults and for the elderly that are as much fun and physically challenging as those for little kids," says the URI professor.
"I often jokingly tell my students that since they don’t habitually chop a cord of wood before class, they should put weights on their cell phones."
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