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Foes of 'globesity' run afoul of sugar's friends

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 19, 2004


In Egypt, more than a quarter of 4-year-olds are overweight. In Zambia, between 15 and 20 percent of the preschoolers are considered obese. And in Chile, more than 25 percent of children younger than 10 tip the scales at unhealthy weights, according to the London-based International Obesity Task Force.

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Now considered a worldwide epidemic, "globesity" is spreading faster in developing countries than in the industrialized world, nutritionists say. The Westernization of diets is considered a key factor.

But the World Health Organization (WHO) is having difficulty persuading governments to do anything about it. The UN agency will present a global antifat strategy at a summit in May. But it has run into vocal opposition from developing countries - particularly from the sugar producers - and from Washington questioning proposed guidelines for fat and sugar intake.

That resistance has infuriated some food experts. "This is all clearly politicized," fumes Marion Nestle, head of the nutrition, food studies, and public health department at New York University. "It has to do with the sugar industry's panic that with the obesity crisis, people will start cutting back on carbohydrates. It is so obvious that large amounts of sugar are not good for your health."

Other scientists, especially those with ties to sugar producers, argue that there is no evidence to support the WHO's suggested ceilings. There is "a very real question of whether any numerical limits should be set" says Richard Cottrell, head of the Sugar Bureau, a research group funded by the British sugar industry.

Nobody disputes the obesity trend lines. The WHO estimates that 300 million people worldwide are obese, and one billion are overweight. (Obesity is defined as when a person's weight is 20 percent greater than the sex- and age-specific weight-for-height standard).It says diseases linked to obesity, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer, now account for about 60 percent of all deaths.

While the rise in obesity - especially among children - has sparked concern in rich countries, experts are more concerned about the trend in developing countries. India has more people diagnosed as diabetic than any other country, and obesity rates are nearing 20 percent in some Chinese cities.

"The whole world's diet is being Westernized," says Neville Rigby, director of policy at the London-based International Obesity Task Force, part of an umbrella research group with 10,000 members in 50 countries. "Poverty is part of the problem - fat and sugar are cheap products, and people are eating the wrong stuff."

At the same time, city-dwellers in the developing countries are leading increasingly sedentary lifestyles, taking buses or cars to work rather than walking or cycling, and generally getting less exercise.

In some countries - such as the Pacific island nation of Nauru, where 70 percent of the inhabitants are obese, according to WHO studies - lifestyle and dietary shifts have happened too quickly for people's bodies to adapt to the changes. Recent research suggests that habitual food scarcity breeds a "thrifty gene" which boosts the efficiency of people's metabolism. When food becomes more plentiful, and "people are exposed to a carbohydrate-rich diet they were not built for, they run into problems," says Josef Schmidhuber, an analyst with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).