Turkana Kids

Promoting Obesity Around the World: More Than Diet

We’re just about done with the obesitization of America. But around the world, promoting obesity is very much a work in progress. The Turkana people, for example, are going through this process quite rapidly in Northwest Kenya. Likewise in China, rural populations have begun to see a striking rise in obesity. Is it all about the “Western” diet? New research tells us that more than just diet is in play.

Certainly, a rapid change in diet plays an important role. But researchers from Princeton have been carefully studying this process in the Turkana and tell us:

“Broader measures of lifestyle modernization (e.g., population density, distance to a major city, and female education levels) have stronger explanatory power than diet alone.”

A Rapid Transition to Western Lifestyles

In a remote desert of northwest Kenya, the Turkana have seen oil discoveries rapidly transform their region over the last 30 years. Large parts of their population have left a pastoral lifestyle to live in cities and villages. Amanda Lea and colleagues document the changes to life and health that have come with this shift. They have had the opportunity to observe a control group who maintained the baseline patterns of their lives with people who shifted to a more urban pattern.

Along with this shift to a more urban pattern came obesity and cardiometabolic disease. In the traditional lifestyle, obesity was non-existent. In the urbanized pattern, diets and other factors shifted rapidly. People consumed more highly processed foods with more refined carbohydrates. The food had more calories in every bite. All this was true and undoubtedly contributed to the rise in health problems.

However, it’s not the whole story. Occupations changed and with those changes came shifts in physical activity. Meal patterns were distinctly different. In cities, people were eating two or three meals per day. In the rural setting, just one. The researchers note that when you upend a person’s whole life, many things change and some of these changes go unmeasured. Psychosocial stressors, for instance, undoubtedly changed, but were not measured directly in this study.

Obesity Coming to Rural China

Yan Hu and colleagues document three decades of change in Guangzhou, China, and its effect on children. They’ve collected data on height, weight, and nutrition status since 1985. What they’ve seen is that economic development and urbanization have brought obesity into the population of these children.

At first, there was a great gap between urban and rural areas. Stunted growth was a problem. But by 2015 this gap had closed. Obesity prevalence in rural children soared 34 times higher. Thus, obesity went from being a non-problem in rural areas to a much bigger one. In fact, it became more prevalent in rural communities than it was in more urban parts of Guangzhou.

It seems pretty clear that economic development is promoting obesity around the world, perhaps in ways that we don’t fully understand. Diet is one important factor, but it’s more than that. If we want to build strong economies around the world without promoting obesity, we have much to learn.

Click here for the study in Turkan and here for the study in Guangzhou. For further reporting, click here.

Turkana Kids, photograph © Rod Waddington / flickr

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October 26, 2020

4 Responses to “Promoting Obesity Around the World: More Than Diet”

  1. October 26, 2020 at 9:26 am, David Brown said:

    “…the “mismatch” between human physiology—which evolved to cope with a mixed plant- and meat-based diet, activity-intensive foraging, and periods of resource scarcity—and Western, industrialized lifestyles has been hypothesized to explain the current epidemic of cardiometabolic disease.”

    Wrong hypothesis. Scientists should be paying attention to changes in the fatty acid profile of the food supply. For example, “The dietary value of the Yakutian horse meat is very high precisely due to the ideal balance of polyunsaturated omega-3 and omega-6 acids, 1:1 ratio of these acids is ideal for us, but civilization is steadily shifting the balance towards the predominance of omega-6 due to the dominance of vegetable oils, cheap pork and fast food in our daily diet.” http://www.sfu-kras.ru/en/news/23160

  2. October 26, 2020 at 10:10 am, Allen Browne said:

    We know diet and activity are not “it”. Rural vs urban doesn’t seem to be “it”. We need to get smarter and search for “it” for each person. We should call it the “it’s”. We need to avoid “KISS” – keep it simple, stupid.

  3. October 26, 2020 at 10:27 am, Ted said:

    Yep, lots of people want to keep it simple and stupid.

  4. October 26, 2020 at 12:11 pm, Richard Atkinson said:

    I do want to KISS it, at least partially. Obviously multiple factors are involved, but the two examples you mention are very rural areas that have not had a great deal of outside contact. There is good evidence that adenovirus 36 causes obesity in experimental animals and many studies show a correlation of Adv36 and obesity in humans (only correlation as we can’t experimentally infect humans). Children perhaps are more susceptible to Adv36 infection than adults as they haven’t had time to contract multiple adenovirus species infections and get some non-specific antibodies that might limit the disease in adults. Can’t say for humans, but if I inject Adv36 up the nose of animals, they get fat in a very high percentage of the time. Coronavirus may not be the only pandemic. Obesity may indeed be an “epidemic.”