As economy grows, waistlines may follow

RICE / U. COLORADO (US) — Developing nations experiencing economic and social growth might also see growing waistlines among their poorest citizens, according to a new study.

Researchers found that while the growth of developing countries may improve conditions such as malnutrition and infectious disease, it may also increase obesity among people with lower socioeconomic status.

“It’s a troubling finding,” says Justin Denney, professor of sociology at Rice University who co-authored the study with University of Colorado sociology professors Fred Pampel and Patrick Krueger.


For the study, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, the researchers examined data from the World Health Survey, an initiative of the World Health Organization aimed at collecting high-quality health data for people across all regions of the world. The researchers looked at data from 67 of the 70 countries surveyed during 2002 and 2003.

“In many cases, developing nations are still dealing with issues such as hunger and infectious disease, especially among the most disadvantaged segments of their population,” Denney says. “At the same time, they’re dealing with a whole new set of health issues that emerge as they continue to develop.”

The study also showed that people with higher socioeconomic status in developing countries are more likely to be obese, whereas people with higher socioeconomic status living in developed countries are less likely. This can be attributed to the different cultural values/norms at play in developing versus developed countries, Denney says.

“In the developing world, being large comes with its own status and prestige, whereas in the developed world, being large is stigmatized. There’s sort of a switching of cultural ideals, and these results are consistent with that.”

The reasons for increased incidence of obesity among the socioeconomically disadvantaged living in developed countries are twofold, Denney says. There is a lack of education about health issues and a lack of access to high-quality, healthy (and in many cases, more expensive) food.

“Unfortunately, our research suggests that if a country develops to the state of the US, in all likelihood you’ll see the same thing that’s happening here in our country. Obesity is a major problem here in the US, but primarily for the most disadvantaged segments of the population.”

Denney hopes the study will promote further research of the worldwide obesity epidemic.

“Social and economic development of a country helps many people, but it also brings these new issues that need consideration, particularly on a global scale,” he says. “If we’re going to start thinking about worldwide health policies, it might be beneficial for them to target specific groups of people.”

The study was funded by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to the University of Colorado Population Center.

More news from Rice University: