Overweight and under-nourished: The future for children in the developing world?

A recent study published in The Lancet shows that food consumption habits are worsening across the developing world, raising the likelihood of a double burden of obesity and malnutrition in poorer countries

Bangladesh is pegged to become a middle-income country by 2021, following substantial improvements in public health, education and poverty reduction since 1990. But a recent paper in The Lancet suggests that this success may be a double-edged sword, as previously unseen diseases and conditions of affluence like obesity are emerging as serious public health threats in the developing world. The study, which analysed the eating habits of people in 187 countries in 1990 and 2010, attributes expanding waistlines to worsening food consumption habits.

The study did not provide in-depth analyses of Bangladesh, but it is known that obesity and overweight are increasing in the country. And the results from this large global study will provide lessons for Bangladesh, where the risks associated with poor eating habits may already be creating a dual burden still dealing with under-nutrition. In previous studies, for example, some 17.6% of schoolchildren in Bangladesh were still found to be underweight in 2009.  And while rates of stunting in Bangladesh have gone down considerably—by 31% in some rural areas – obesity is also on the rise. Even though the rates are still low – less than 3% in 2012, according to one study – the absolute numbers of obese rural Bangladesh children have more than doubled in just 13 years.

These trends could leave health systems struggling to cope with simultaneous burdens of communicable and non-communicable diseases associated from malnutrition and obesity. More worryingly, sustained poor diets, and an influx of food with low-nutrient density thanks to unregulated advertising and incursion by food and beverage industries, could result in future generations of children who are both overweight and undernourished.

In fact, the leading causes of death in Bangladesh in 2013, identified by the Global Burden of Disease Study, were stroke, ischemic heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Obesity is a precursor to all three of these non-communicable diseases, and it is caused by a poor diet and unhealthy lifestyle.

The results of The Lancet paper, which evaluated dietary consumption on a country-by-country basis based on micronutrient quality, imply that any growing cohort of obese Bangladeshi children will not well nourished either. The dietary quality of almost every region of the world has worsened based on the increased consumption of unhealthy food since 1990, but improvements in the consumption of healthy foods were limited to just the high- and middle-income countries.