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Soaring Food Prices Leading To Obesity as Well as Hunger

Young woman sips an orange soda and waits for the rain to stop, on the porch of a small country store in a rural village in Bungoma County, Kenya. Credit: IFAD/Susan Beccio.

Young woman sips an orange soda and waits for the rain to stop, on the porch of a small country store in a rural village in Bungoma County, Kenya. Credit: IFAD/Susan Beccio.

ROME, Jul 20 2023 (IPS) - The climate, conflict and economic shocks of recent years and their impact on food prices have landed a huge blow to the world’s hopes of achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of eliminating global hunger by 2030.

Indeed, rather than coming down, the number of people who faced chronic undernourishment in 2022 was around 735 million, an increase of 122 million on the pre-pandemic level of 2019, the United Nations said in the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report that was released earlier this month.

Although tragic, this increase is not surprising.

What one perhaps would not expect is for obesity rates in developing countries to be rising too.

Steep price gaps between healthy and unhealthy foods, coupled with the unavailability of a variety of healthy foods, are driving rises in obesity rates in both urban and rural areas of developing countries, the IFAD paper found

According to a new report by the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), overweight and obesity rates across low and middle income countries (LMICs) are approaching levels found in higher-income countries.

In 2016, for example, the percentage of people in low-income countries who were overweight was 25.8%, up over five percentage points on 2006.

The percentage rose from 21.4% to 27% for low-middle income countries in the same period.

The reason is simple – money.

Steep price gaps between healthy and unhealthy foods, coupled with the unavailability of a variety of healthy foods, are driving rises in obesity rates in both urban and rural areas of developing countries, the IFAD paper found.

The report, which reviewed hundreds of peer-reviewed studies and examined data from five representative countries, Indonesia, Zambia, Egypt, Nigeria, and Bolivia, said that the price gap between healthy foods, which tend to be expensive, and cheaper unhealthy foods is greater in developing countries than in rich developed ones.

As a result, three billion people simply cannot afford a healthy diet.

According to one of the studies (Headey 2019) reviewed by the report, it is 11.66 times more expensive to obtain a calorie from eggs in poor countries than it is to obtain a calorie from starchy staples, such as potatoes, bread, rice, pasta, and cereals.

In those same countries, it is only 2.92 times more expensive to obtain a calorie from sugary snacks than from starchy staples.

In wealthy countries, the gap is much smaller: it is 2.6 times more expensive to obtain a calorie from eggs than it is to obtain one from starchy staples and 1.43 times more expensive to obtain a calorie from sugary snacks.

“While price gaps between healthy and unhealthy foods exist in nations across the globe, that price gap is much wider in poorer countries,” said Joyce Njoro, IFAD lead technical specialist, nutrition.

“Also, high-income inequality within a country is associated with a higher prevalence of obesity.

“If we want to curb rising obesity rates in developing countries, we need big solutions that address how food systems work.

“It is alarming to note that three billion people globally cannot afford a healthy diet.

“Preventing obesity in developing countries requires a comprehensive approach that addresses cultural norms, raises awareness of associated health risks, and promotes the production, availability and affordability of healthy foods.”

The report said research showed sugar-sweetened beverage consumption is on the rise in developing countries (Nicole D. Ford et al. 2017; Malik and Hu 2022), and global sales of packaged food rose from 67.7kg per capita in 2005 to 76.9kg in 2017.

It noted that packaged food tends to be processed, which often means increased content of added or free sugars, saturated and trans-fat, salt and diet energy density, and decreasing protein, dietary fibre, and micronutrients.

The report also mentioned cultural factors.

In some developing countries, fatness is seen as desirable in children as it is considered a sign of health and wealth, and consumption of unhealthy foods may also carry a certain prestige, it said.

Culture also plays a role at the energy-expenditure side of the equation in places where physical inactivity is associated with high social status.

The report added that women are more likely to be overweight or obese than men in nearly all developing countries.

Referring to a 2017 study (Nicole D. Ford et al), it said reasons included different physiological responses to early-life nutrition, different hormonal responses to energy expenditure, weight gain associated with pregnancies, lower physical activity levels, depression, economic circumstances over the lifespan, and differences in sociocultural factors – like those regarding ideal body size and the acceptability of physical activity.

IFAD released the report ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit +2 Stocktaking Moment in Rome July 24 – 26 July.

The summit, hosted by Italy and IFAD and its sister Rome-based UN food agencies, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), will highlight how food-system transformations can contribute to better and more sustainable outcomes for people and the planet and the advancement of the Sustainable Development Goals ahead of the SDG Summit in September 2023.

 
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