Eating habits in emerging markets are following a dangerous trend of the West, and many will be obeses in no time. If you want to reduce (or avoid) obesity, do skip the samosas or fries and order the saag or dal makhani instead
One of the problems of living in a town is that the limited variety of restaurants available that otherwise would be available in a larger city. My town is a tourist destination. It has more and better restaurants than comparable towns including a variety serving food of various countries from Mexico to China. Sadly it does not have any Indian restaurants. So when I have the opportunity to travel to the nearest city, I like to eat at a restaurant run by my friend from New Delhi. The food is excellent but I give up on the samosas. My body mass index (BMI) is a kilogram away from 25. Unlike many Americans, I give up on anything that is fried in oil. Fat creates fat and many of my fellow American citizens are just that. Unfortunately, people in emerging markets are following the trend.
There are around 570 million overweight and obese people in developed countries. The definition of overweight is having a BMI of over 25. A BMI over 30 is considered obese. In the US alone, an astonishing 70% of adults are either overweight or obese. The obesity rate is now up to 36% of the population for adults and 20% for children. (BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight that applies to adult men and women)
Overeating is no longer just a disease of rich countries. Developing countries’ waistlines have been expanding as fast as their economies. The number of people in emerging markets who are either overweight or obese has exploded to more than 900 million, tripling in 30 years.
It is not surprising that levels of obesity rise with incomes. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) all have obesity rates of 30%, and are catching up to the US. Kuwait has actually surpassed the US. Almost 90% of the population are overweight and 35% are obese.
Middle-income countries like Mexico and China have particularly high obesity rates. South Africa has a higher obesity rate than the UK. People in south-east Asian countries are also becoming heavier, with people in Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar are 20% to 40% overweight and Malaysia has the highest levels of obesity at 15%.
South Asia is not nearly as bad as some of its neighbours. Obesity and overweight levels are the lowest in the region and malnutrition is a greater problem, at least for the poor. Higher income groups in India though are packing on the pounds.
Why are developing countries becoming supersized? While it is easy to blame everything on McDonalds and Coke, the reasons are more complex. The most obvious is money.
People with more cash can obviously eat more. But, it is what they are eating that is adding to their waistline. The popularity of Western music and fashion has sadly brought along ‘Western diets’. These diets are heavy in refined carbohydrates, sugars, fats and animal-sourced food. They are probably a genetic not a cultural preference. They are also more available than ever. Better distribution and the industrialisation of the food chain makes these irresistible tasty treats accessible to more people—at lower prices.
Another part of the problem is urbanisation. Urban environments replete with cars, metros, and computers don’t require us to move on our own as much. The result is more empty calories, but less exercise.
Some developing countries are also burdened with cultural preference for more curvy figures. In parts of Africa, Middle East and South Asian cultures, chunky is definitely in. It is considered both healthy and attractive.
Almost all of us have a genetic preference for fattier foods, but some populations are more susceptible to the diseases that result. For example, Mexicans drink 40% more sugary drinks than Americans, but this does not explain that difference in rates of diabetes. In Mexico 16% of the adults suffer from diabetes. However, it is over 50% more than the United States, where 10% of the population is afflicted.
The reason for the difference? Genes. Specifically, Neanderthal genes.
Non-African populations carry about 2% of Neanderthal genes, as a result of interbreeding when both species lived side-by-side in Europe about 30,000 years ago. Apparently the Neanderthals’ biochemistry was more efficient in storing fat. If you inherit a specific gene (SLC16A11), you have a much higher probability of getting diabetes. Native Americans apparently have a higher amount of this genetic configuration and passed it on to their Mexican descendants.
It is not just the Mexicans who have genetic issues. South Asians have a higher tendency to store fat in the abdomen and organs, leading to a higher incident of chronic diseases at lower weights.
It is not just the genes that may favour bad diets. Politicians are also part of the problem. It is difficult to legislate restrictions on unhealthy foods as witnessed by the media storm that surrounded New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to limit size of sugary drinks. There are also large farm and food lobbies that encourage over production of wheat, sugar and vegetable oils.
The economic impact is growing as fast as midriffs. In the US alone, obesity-related illnesses eat up $190 billion dollars, or 21% of annual medical spending. Treating the obese costs 30% more than treating the slender. Global spending on obesity is rising at 17% per year. The health care costs for developing countries could easily overwhelm their health care systems and put an unsustainable burden on their economies.
The solution? Probably the easiest for most countries is to go back to basics. Eat local. Eat cheap. In my travels through 40 countries I have been privileged to sample many of the local dishes. Many of the local recipes especially in developing countries often contained a lot more vegetables and less sugar and fat than a typical western diet. No doubt this was due to the fact that many people simply could not afford meat. In other countries religious concerns encouraged a wonderful healthy and delicious vegetarian cuisine.
The solution to the world obesity epidemic is actually deceivingly simple. In South Korea, the government launched an education campaign encouraging people to eat traditional cooking and it was able to lower obesity rates. Avoid British food at all costs. It will kill you. So next time, skip the samosas and fries and order the saag or the dal makhani.
(William Gamble is president of Emerging Market Strategies. An international lawyer and economist, he developed his theories beginning with his first-hand experience and business dealings in the Russia starting in 1993. Mr Gamble holds two graduate law degrees. He was educated at Institute D'Etudes Politique, Trinity College, University of Miami School of Law, and University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. He was a member of the bar in three states, over four different federal courts and has spoken four languages.)