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Saturday, 4 March, 2000, 23:41 GMT
Malnutrition hits fat and thin
starving child
Almost one African child in three is underweight: Hunger kills, quickly or slowly . . .
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

The number of overweight people in the world now equals those made thin by hunger, but both groups are malnourished according to a study of obesity and inadequate diet.

We're like children in a candy shop, every day of our lives

Gary Gardner
The study, Underfed and Overfed: The Global Epidemic of Malnutrition, is published by the Worldwatch Institute, based in Washington, DC.

The authors say that while the world's underfed population has shrunk slightly to 1.2 billion, the number of overweight people has risen to the same figure.

They say obesity cost the US 12% of the national health care budget in the late 1990s - $118bn - more than double the $47bn attributable to smoking. They define both the overweight and the underweight as suffering from malnutrition.

overweight people
. . . and so does obesity, another form of malnutrition
Gary Gardner, who wrote the report with Brian Halweil, said: "The hungry and the overweight share high levels of sickness and disability, shortened life expectancies, and lower levels of productivity - each of which is a drag on a country's development."

In the developing countries, the report says, there are 150 million underweight children - almost one child in three. In Africa, both the proportion and the absolute number of hungry children is rising.

Yet 80% of the world's hungry children live in countries with food surpluses. Brian Halweil said: "While the myth persists that hunger results from a scarcity of food, inequitable distribution of resources and gender discrimination prevent most of the world's hungry from getting enough to eat."

Problem spreading

The report recommends improving women's education, access to health care, and living conditions as some of the surest ways of improving national nutrition.

In the US, by contrast, 55% of adults are overweight by international standards, and 23% are obese. Among American children, 20% are overweight.

The problem is spreading to some developing countries: 36% of Brazilians and 41% of Colombians are overweight, rates that bear comparison with much of Europe.

woman and sleeping child
Women and children are at special risk
The report says most countries fail to give a high enough priority to nutrition, though it singles out Cuba and the Indian state of Kerala as two places which have been very successful at reducing malnutrition.

They have managed to do so by targeting vulnerable groups like women and children, and by also providing broad access to health care.

The report scorns what it calls "technofixes" aimed at tackling the symptoms of obesity, and notes that liposuction is now the leading form of cosmetic surgery in the US, with 400,000 operations annually.

Industry bonanza

While billions of dollars are spent on gimmicky diets and food advertising, it says, far too little is spent on nutrition education. According to Gary Gardner, that leaves a vacuum that the food industry is eager to exploit.

"In the absence of a strong government educational effort, most people get their nutrition cues from food companies.

"In the modern food environment, we're like children in a candy shop, every day of our lives."

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See also:

25 Feb 00 |  Asia-Pacific
Obesity health risk in Asia-Pacific
21 Apr 99 |  Africa
Africa starvation warning
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