The Uprising Double Burden of Malnutrition in Developing Countries

By Emily Lin, ‘20

Alongside the hunger and poor nutrition epidemic, a new kind of malnutrition has hit developing countries: obesity. The growing availability of inexpensive, processed foods and fast food chain restaurants is changing the palates and lifestyles of many families with rising incomes, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Many public health officials and nutritional experts point to this growth as a large contributor to the rise of obesity rates, which has also led to increased rates of communicable diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, and chronic illnesses. Ghana, for example, has seen a 650% increase in obesity rates since 1980, during the time in which Kentucky Fried Chicken grew to have 850 outlets and a powerful brand name. In order to reduce the obesity epidemic, governments will have to address many complex and overlapping issues that fuel this crisis.

As wealthy nations shift towards healthier diets, multinational food and beverage companies have turned to feed the growing middle class in developing countries. According to Euromonitor, a marketing-research firm, packaged food sales surged by 25% worldwide, compared with a 10% increase in the United States from 2011 to 2016. Parallel trends can be found with fast food, which witnessed a 30% rise worldwide from 2011 to 2016, compared with a 21% growth in the United States. These corporations find huge potential in new markets, as the growing middle class enjoys the convenience, flavors, and status offered by packaged and fast foods.

In addition to their expansion, many companies hold great economic power and political influence in these developing countries. For instance, food and beverage conglomerates in Brazil are responsible for 10% of the nation’s economic output and employ 1.6 million people. In 2014, food and beverage companies, such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, donated $158 million to members of Brazil’s National Congress, according to Transparência Brasil. A strong foothold in a developing country’s economy and political system has a major impact on the ability for government officials to curb obesity rates and improve public health without disturbing the sales of products from these big-name corporations.

Changing sociocultural perspectives and attitudes are also upending traditional diets in these developing countries. In some countries like Ghana, Western-style fast foods represent a “social status,” according to lecturer Matilda Laar at the University of Ghana. Moreover, pleasurable consumption and weight gain are embraced as an acceptable side effect especially in countries that have faced extreme hunger and poverty. Additionally, it has helped many local businesses who have transformed their menus to incorporate western-style food like fried chicken and fries mixed with their respective cultural foods, setting them apart from other local restaurants. The association of cleanliness and sanitation brought by packaged foods and fast food restaurants has also encouraged consumption.

With concerns over the impending health crisis, governments are looking for ways to discourage unhealthy eating. Some countries, like the United Arab of Emirates, have turned to sin taxes. The UAE recently implemented a 50% tax on sugary drinks, which went effect on October 1st, partly in hopes of generating revenue as global oil prices remain low, but to also combat diabetes rates. The UAE has one of the worst diabetes rates in the world, with one in five people between the ages of 20 and 79 having Type 2 diabetes. While there is limited evidence that past soda taxes have hindered obesity rates, other developing countries are carefully monitoring the effects of the sin tax in the UAE.

With food and beverage conglomerates and fast food chains continue to penetrate markets, numerous of developing nations are faced with a dilemma of welcoming economic growth, growing populations, and urbanization at the expense of Western health problems of obesity and linked communicable diseases that are catalyzed by processed and fast food. The question remains if these governments have the ability and resources to slow and eventually reverse the growth of obesity while maintaining positive relations with these companies to boost economic development.



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