Urban areas suffer obesity as rural areas still go hungry

Saturday November 29 2014

East Africa faces a contrasting burden of obesity in urban areas and acute malnutrition in the countryside, a new report shows.

The Global Nutrition Report 2014 states that none of the East African countries is on course to meet the MDG target on reducing stunting for children under five, with 38 per cent of the children in the region remaining stunted.

For example, Burundi has made little progress in cutting the under nutrition levels in children.

The report shows that despite increasing economic growth and a steady improvement in underlying drivers of nutrition status — such as food supply, clean water and sanitation, education and healthcare — far too many people remain below the minimum calorie threshold in East Africa.

However, those migrating from the countryside to cities are eating too much fatty food, leading to rising rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and high blood pressure.

In Uganda, for example, obesity is on the rise although under-nutrition continues to pose the biggest problem, with about 40 per cent of children under five suffering from stunted physical growth and mental development due to lack of vitamins and nutrient-rich food.


According to the report, both obesity and under-nutrition can be caused by poverty and food insecurity, with the urban poor unable to access or afford fresh and nutritious food.

In Africa, in contrast to other regions, the number of the undernourished are rising because of increasing population.

The report shows that in some of the North and Southern African countries, over-nutrition has surpassed under-nutrition, but there is a complete lack of awareness about the problems it brings.

Prevention of under-nutrition in early childhood, the report says,  leads to hourly earnings that are 20 per cent higher and wage rates that are 48 per cent higher; individuals who are 33 per cent more likely to escape poverty; and women who are 10 per cent more likely to own their own business.

“Underlying drivers such as food supply, clean water and sanitation, education, and health care can contrib­ute to improving nutrition status,” says the report, adding that estimates of undernourishment based on food supply are decreasing, but—with 805 million people below a minimum calorie threshold in 2012–2014—they are still high.

According to the International Monetary Fund, economic growth is expected to accelerate in 2014–2016 period as is the capacity to collect taxes.

However, it is not clear wheth­er this growth will persist in the coming decade, but reducing undernutrition is easier in the context of economic growth and rising tax revenues—although these conditions do present chal­lenges for keeping obesity in check.

The report highlights policies countries need to adopt to prevent under-nutrition. These include early initiation of breastfeeding (within one hour after birth), exclusive breastfeeding of infants under six months old, continued breastfeeding up to 12 months, vitamin A supplementation of pre-school-age children, and iron–folic acid supplementation of pregnant women for more than 90 days.

Countries also need to ensure people have access to improved water and sanitation to reduce the risk of infection that can compromise nutrient absorption.

In Africa and Asia—the regions where access to improved water and sanitation has been the poorest—peo­ple’s access to these improvements is steadily increasing. Still, in East, Central, and West Africa, over 30 per cent of the population has no access to improved water.