You are here: Home » International » News » Economy
Business Standard

Obesity is stalking poor countries, where hunger once reigned

In middle-income countries, the number of people undernourished fell by roughly a quarter, or 162 million, between 2006 and 2020

Obesity | Hunger


What's the best way for children to lose weight? Here's what research says
Photo: Shutterstock

You might not notice it from the way that inflation, conflict and pandemic have driven up the cost of food in recent years, but the spectre of that has haunted humanity for millennia is moving closer to being vanquished.

In middle-income countries, the number of people undernourished fell by roughly a quarter, or 162 million, between 2006 and 2020. That’s more than enough to offset the 43 million increase in low-income nations, which are mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.

In China, home to most of history’s biggest famines, the prevalence of childhood stunting — a typical indicator of malnutrition — is now at levels comparable to the US. The shift in India has been just dramatic. In 2006, more than a third of women were underweight. By 2019, that figure had been cut almost in half.

In the middle-income countries where three-quarters of humanity live, the scourge of undernourishment is being replaced by a fast-rising epidemic of obesity, along with all the attendant problems of diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.


The success of the world in preventing is often seen as a repudiation of the 19th century economist Thomas Malthus, who argued that mass starvation would inevitably result from populations growing faster than agricultural output. In fact, the rising tide of is evidence that the hard limits to food production Malthus envisaged are more binding than we suspect.

To the extent that developing countries have managed to capture extra nutrition to feed their populations over the past few decades, an outsize share has come from the lowest-cost calories — fats, sugars and cereal products. The energy in dark green leafy vegetables costs about 29 times more than in fats and oils, while the calories in vitamin A-rich vegetables such as pumpkin or mangoes cost about 10 times their equivalent in sugar.

With food prices at their highest levels since at least 1990 and Indonesia embargoing exports of palm oil to cool the cost of cooking fats, shortages of nutrition may seem the more pressing problem. Still, isn’t so much the enemy of as its sibling — another symptom of a world unable to provide its people with the nutrition they need to lead a healthy life. In the years ahead, that threat will only grow.

Dear Reader,

Business Standard has always strived hard to provide up-to-date information and commentary on developments that are of interest to you and have wider political and economic implications for the country and the world. Your encouragement and constant feedback on how to improve our offering have only made our resolve and commitment to these ideals stronger. Even during these difficult times arising out of Covid-19, we continue to remain committed to keeping you informed and updated with credible news, authoritative views and incisive commentary on topical issues of relevance.
We, however, have a request.

As we battle the economic impact of the pandemic, we need your support even more, so that we can continue to offer you more quality content. Our subscription model has seen an encouraging response from many of you, who have subscribed to our online content. More subscription to our online content can only help us achieve the goals of offering you even better and more relevant content. We believe in free, fair and credible journalism. Your support through more subscriptions can help us practise the journalism to which we are committed.

Support quality journalism and subscribe to Business Standard.

Digital Editor

First Published: Mon, May 09 2022. 23:35 IST