Obesity in Resource-Poor NationsThe state of physical activity – or perhaps inactivity – is presenting researchers with a new problem in an age of widespread poverty. Over two billion people are currently obese or overweight, globally. Subsequently, one in 10 deaths are the direct result of health issues stemming from inactivity and obesity.

Inactivity in high-income countries is not a novel concept. When there are means of automatic transportation, a market or grocer nearby and a population that has access to vast white-collar work opportunities, inactivity – and its resulting obesity – existing at an elevated rate is not suspect. However, obesity in resource-poor nations is now concerning global leaders. When a country cannot afford basic needs without help, how will it deal with increased healthcare costs associated with poor health?

Brazilian researcher, Dr. Pedro C. Hallal, recently sought out to answer just how inactive the world is becoming. In 2012, Hallal compiled answers to 155 population surveys from 122 different countries, with the purpose of collecting data about people’s general health and lifestyle choices. What Hallal discovered was that severely impoverished countries, like Swaziland and Dominican Republic, ranked at the top of the list of the most inactive countries, alongside some of the most affluent countries.

According to Hallal’s research, Malta ranked at the very top, with nearly 72 percent of the population reporting high levels of inactivity. However, the Pacific Islands, Middle East and Americas lead the way, generally. For comparison, the U.S. had an inactivity rate of 41 percent. The countries with the most commendable numbers were well under 10 percent; these include Bangladesh, Mozambique, Benin and Cambodia.

Sub-Saharan Africa demonstrates, though, why physical activity is so essential, even when wages and higher living standards cannot be guaranteed. Noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes and cancer, thrive in resource-poor countries such as Kenya. While these resource-poor nations are having a tough time ensuring a balanced diet, the rapid urbanization of these same countries is compounding the negative health effects and increasing the number of health-related deaths.

A healthy lifestyle ultimately depends on an active one. This does not mean that gyms need to be constructed immediately, nor does foreign aid need to fund exercise equipment before meeting basic needs. Rather, one important thing that can be done is simply encouraging people to be more active. The U.N. has intervened, with its Sustainable Development Goals placing a focus on poor eating choices combined with physical inactivity, and the need to improve the rates of obesity that result from these choices.

However, the solution must be a societal one. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, noted that “different countries have different issues… You need to mobilize (their) whole society to tackle the problem… it’s not just a medical problem.”

The benefits of a healthier nation are also not a novel concept. When people are physically active, the heart and lungs experience increased efficiency, cholesterol levels go down, muscles strengthen, blood pressure problems decline and, overall, individuals makes themselves less susceptible to major illnesses. There are no inherent risks in encouraging people to walk a little more and have their kids play outside for 30 minutes, aside from a possible scraped knee or other minor accident.

The rising level of obesity in resource-poor nations should concern the countries experiencing it, along with the countries that are providing foreign aid. While not every nation can adjust the foods available, individuals in resource-poor nations can still make choices about their physical activity in order to prevent obesity. Neglecting to address this issue will only open the door to more medical expenses for countries that cannot afford to run themselves financially. Obesity is preventable, but it takes societal motivation and accountability to help prevent it.

Taylor Elkins

Photo: Flickr

The Social Costs of High Food Prices

The failure of wages to keep pace with rising food prices is putting a strain on families and communities worldwide, according to a report titled ‘Squeezed’ by OxFam and the International Development Studies. The food price spike of 2011 alone increased the numbers of people living in poverty by an estimated 44 million. The study focused on rural and urban consumers in 10 developing countries: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Kenya, Bangladesh, Guatemala, Zambia, Bolivia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Vietnam.

Leaders continue to disregard the specific impacts the food system has on low income households. The authors of the report write, “Many people are earning more, but this is often illusory: wage rises rarely match rises in the cost of living. People have to cope in time-honoured ways by cutting back, substituting, shopping around, and growing and gathering more. The impacts are felt in homes, relationships, communities and work places, changing the way people think about themselves and others.” More often households are being forced to resort to riskier ways of getting income, for example, gold mining in Burkina Faso; sex work in Kenya; and jungle fishing in Bangladesh, despite the risks posed by tigers and pirates. The numbers of migrants has also increased as people must travel to find work. And the stress to food insecurity often leads to increased levels of domestic violence, and alcohol and drug abuse.

The types of food that people consume represent the single best indicator of their well-being. The research from this report uncovered a familiar hierarchy of hardship whereby the poorest people eat too little and lose out on vital nutrients. Even some better-off urban communities are struggling to afford basics, and have begun eating less diverse diets and substituting foods. Latest estimates suggest one in eight of the world’s population suffer from undernourishment and that nearly one in five face food “inadequacy”.

The rising costs of fuel, rent, and agricultural inputs make it more difficult for people to become farmers, despite the need to produce cheaper food. Without relatively large land assets, capital and the capacity to store produce and hedge their cultivation decisions, contemporary farming in the 10 developing countries surveyed will remain very difficult. Furthermore, agriculture is less appealing for young people to enter into due to of unpredictable returns, high input costs, and high costs of living. Education is perceived as a ticket off the farm, and agricultural aspirations are rare.

Societies, too, are changing in response to the food price crisis. Customary cooperative labor arrangements are being replaced with wage labor. The urgent need for cash takes priority over collective social life and values. The high price of essentials translates into a decline in public social life, with families becoming more inwardly focused and people less willing or able to socialize or help each other.

The report recommends that national social protection policies aim to provide routine protection for the poorest and most vulnerable communities, with the understanding that it is too late to start developing schemes when a price spike occurs. Policymakers should design social assistance policies aimed at protecting against spikes in the form of temporary cash or food transfers, or by providing subsidies that are automatically triggered by price rises. And economic leaders should adjust to real changes in needs by linking social protection to inflation.

– Maria Caluag

Sources: Guardian, OxFam-IDS
Photo: Politico