The challenge of ‘New World Syndrome’

By Gary Lai

The WHO estimated that by this year approximately 2.3 billion adults would be overweight and more than 700 million would be obese. Obesity is a major risk factor in a host of diseases, like cardiovascular diseases, diabetes mellitus and metabolic syndrome, and hypertension.

Claudia Bambs, Jaime Cerda and Alex Escalona of the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile reported a drastic shift in high energy food consumption in Chile, a developing country (which, according to the World Bank, is defined as having an annual GNP of US$9,075 or less). Corresponding to a drop in malnutrition there — from 37 percent to 2.9 percent among children younger than six years old between 1960 and 2000 and from 26 percent to 14.1 percent among pregnant women between 1987 and 2000 — was a rise in obesity — 20 percent among 4-year-olds and from 12.9 percent to 32.7 percent among pregnant women during the same period. It should have been no surprise, since daily calorie intake increased — from 2.667 kilocalories per 11.159 Joules in 1980 to 2.844 kilocalories per 11.899 Joules in 1998.

Najat Mokhtar, Jalila Elati, Rachida Chabir, Abdelatif Bour and their colleagues at the Ibn Tofail University, Global Food and Nutrition and Johns Hopkins University reported the obesity level among women in Morocco between 15 and 60-years-old to be 17.8 percent. In Tunisia, the obesity rate increased from 28.3 percent in 1980 to 51 percent in 1997 — a threefold increase. One out of two Tunisian women will become overweight or obese. This is not helped by the urbanization — which promotes an inactive and bad alimentary lifestyle — experienced in these countries (Morocco’s population doubled from 15 million in 1970 to almost 30 million in 1999). The paradox is the endemic malnutrition that still exists (24 percent of children under five were malnourished in Morocco in 1992, while 18 percent were in Tunisia in 1988).

S.U. Raymond, from Changing Our World — a New York-based philanthropy consulting firm — blames falling food prices and globalization of the economies as additional reasons for an increase in risk factors for chronic diseases.

Barry M. Popkin, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, blames the increase in obesity on changes in people’s diet. He claims that the peoples of most countries in Asia, Latin America, North Africa, the Middle East and the cities of sub-Saharan Africa have seen a huge shift in diet — in the amount of fat, sugar, and animal food product intake and a decrease in cereal intake and fiber — analogous to a Western diet. In Asia, there is an increase in oil in the diet.

Industrialization is going on all over the world, Popkin adds. An unpreventable consequence is the more sedentary lifestyle it leads to. Not only does work require less energy input, less physical effort is required in leisure activities. Household appliances have reduced energy expenditure at home — a marked difference to the agrarian era of human development.