Paper

International Journal of Obesity (2004) 28, S2–S9. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0802804

The nutrition transition: worldwide obesity dynamics and their determinants

B M Popkin1 and P Gordon-Larsen1

1Department of Nutrition, Schools of Public Health and Medicine, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, USA

Correspondence: Professor BM Popkin, Carolina Population Center, CB # 8120 University Square, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27516-3997, USA. E-mail: POPKIN@UNC.EDU

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Abstract

OBJECTIVE: This paper explores the major changes in diet and physical activity patterns around the world and focuses on shifts in obesity.

DESIGN: Review of results focusing on large-scale surveys and nationally representative studies of diet, activity, and obesity among adults and children.

SUBJECTS: Youth and adults from a range of countries around the world.

MEASUREMENTS: The International Obesity Task Force guidelines for defining overweight and obesity are used for youth and the body mass index greater than or equal to25 kg/m2 and 30 cutoffs are used, respectively, for adults.

RESULTS: The nutrition transition patterns are examined from the time period termed the receding famine pattern to one dominated by nutrition-related noncommunicable diseases (NR-NCDs). The speed of dietary and activity pattern shifts is great, particularly in the developing world, resulting in major shifts in obesity on a worldwide basis. Data limitations force us to examine data on obesity trends in adults to provide a broader sense of changes in obesity over time, and then to examine the relatively fewer studies on youth. Specifically, this work provides a sense of change both in the United States, Europe, and the lower- and middle-income countries of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.

CONCLUSION: The paper shows that changes are occurring at great speed and at earlier stages of the economic and social development of each country. The burden of obesity is shifting towards the poor.

Keywords:

youth obesity, nutrition transition, obesity trend

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Introduction

Over the past 15 y, there has been increasing evidence that the structure of dietary intakes and the prevalence of obesity around the developing world have been changing at an increasingly rapid pace.1 In many ways, these shifts are a continuation of large-scale changes that have occurred repeatedly over time; however, we will assert and show that the changes facing low- and moderate-income countries appear to be very rapid. While initially these shifts were felt to be limited to higher-income urban populations, it is increasingly clear that these are much broader trends affecting all segments of society.

Two historic processes of change occur simultaneously with, or precede, the 'nutrition transition'. One is the demographic transition—the shift from a pattern of high fertility and mortality to one of low fertility and mortality (typical of modern industrialized countries). The second is the epidemiological transition, first described by Omran:2 the shift from a pattern of high prevalence of infectious disease—associated with malnutrition, periodic famine, and poor environmental sanitation—to one of high prevalence of chronic and degenerative disease—associated with urban–industrial lifestyles.3

The nutrition transition is closely related to the demographic and epidemiologic transitions. Large shifts have occurred in diet and in physical activity patterns, particularly in the last one or two decades of the 20th century. Modern societies seem to be converging on a diet high in saturated fats, sugar, and refined foods but low in fiber—often termed the 'Western diet'—and on lifestyles characterized by lower levels of activity. These changes are reflected in nutritional outcomes, such as changes in average stature, body composition, and morbidity.

The last three stages of the nutrition transition are described in more detail in Figure 1. In Stage 3, famine begins to recede as income rises. In Stage 4, changes in diet and activity pattern lead to the emergence of new disease problems and increased disability. In Stage 5, behavioral change begins to reverse the negative tendencies and make possible a process of 'successful aging'.4, 5 The changes are all driven by a range of factors, including urbanization, economic growth, technical change, and culture. For convenience, the patterns can be thought of as historical developments; however, 'earlier' patterns are not restricted to the periods in which they first arose, but continue to characterize certain geographic and socioeconomic (SES) subpopulations. Elsewhere we have laid out the full set of nutrition transition stages in more detail.6, 7

Figure 1.
Figure 1 - Unfortunately we are unable to provide accessible alternative text for this. If you require assistance to access this image, please contact help@nature.com or the author

Stages of the nutrition transition.

Full figure and legend (50K)

On a global basis, there are several themes related to obesity that we will summarize. The first is the general shift toward obesity that represents a global problem rather than one centered in a few high-income countries. The second is the rapid increase in obesity found in lower- and middle-income developing countries—a rate of change that appears to be greater than that found in higher-income countries. The third is the shift in the burden of obesity toward the poor on a worldwide basis. We present the limited comparable data on trends in adolescent obesity across the globe, with specific attention to the link between obesity and economic and social development.

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Dietary changes around the world are rapid!

The diets of the developing world are shifting rapidly, particularly with respect to fat, caloric sweeteners, and animal source foods (ASF).1, 8

Edible oil

Elsewhere we have provided evidence of the rapid increases in edible oil at the national and household level throughout the developing world. In many developing countries, dietary change has begun with major increases in domestic production and imports of oilseeds and vegetable oils—rather than animal source products or caloric sweeteners. For instance, between 1991 and 1996/7, global production of vegetable fats and oils rose from 60 to 71 million metric tons.9 In contrast, the production of visible animal fats (butter and tallow) has remained steady at approximately 12 million metric tons. Principal vegetable oils include soybean, sunflower, rapeseed, palm, and groundnut oil. With the exception of groundnut oil, global availability of each has approximately tripled between 1961 and 1990. While the broader macroeconomic shifts that affected this increase in edible vegetable fat intake—namely, edible vegetable fat prices, supply, and consumption—is unique because it affected rich and poor countries equally, the net impact is relatively much greater on low-income countries.10, 11

Caloric sweeteners

Sugar is the world's predominant sweetener. It is not clear exactly when sugar became the world's principal sweetener—most likely in the 17th or 18th century—as the New World began producing large quantities of sugar at reduced prices.12, 13 We use the term caloric sweetener instead of added sugar, as there is such a range of nonsugar products used today. High-fructose corn syrup is a prime example, as it is the sweetener used in all US soft drinks. The name 'sweeteners' includes products used for sweetening derived either from sugar crops, cereals, fruits, milk, or produced by insects. This category includes a wide variety of monosaccharides (glucose and fructose) and disaccharides (sucrose and saccharose), which exist either in a crystallized state as sugar or in thick liquid form as syrups. Included in sweeteners are maple sugar and syrups, caramel, golden syrup, artificial and natural honey, maltose, glucose, dextrose, glucose (also known as high-fructose corn syrup), other types of fructose, sugar confectionery, and lactose.

In the last several decades, increasingly larger quantities of cereals (primarily maize) have been used to produce sweeteners derived from starch. The overall trends show a large increase in caloric sweetener consumed.14 In 2000, 306 kcal were consumed per person per day, about a third more than in 1962; caloric sweeteners also accounted for a larger share of both total energy and total carbohydrates consumed. Not surprisingly, we have shown that all measures of caloric sweetener increase significantly as gross national product (GNP) per capita of the country and urbanization increase. However, the interaction between income growth and urbanization is important. Figure 2 shows the relationship between the proportion of energy from different food sources and GNP, for two different levels of urbanization; see Drewnoswski and Popkin10 for a description of the analysis. In the less urbanized case (panel A), the share of sweeteners increases sharply with income, from about 5% to about 15%. In the more urbanized case (panel B), the share (over 15%) is much higher at lower income and decreases with income. The analysis confirms previous observations that diets of people living in urban areas are distinct from those of their rural counterparts.15

Figure 2.
Figure 2 - Unfortunately we are unable to provide accessible alternative text for this. If you require assistance to access this image, please contact help@nature.com or the author

Relationship between the proportion of energy from each food source and GNP per capita and urbanization. (a) The proportion of the population residing in urban areas is placed at 25%, 1990. (b) The proportion of the population residing in urban areas is placed at 75%, 1990.

Full figure and legend (117K)

Animal source foods

The revolution in ASF refers to the increase in demand and production of meat, fish, and milk in low-income developing countries. Delgado at International Food Policy Research Institutes (IFPRIs) has studied this issue extensively in a number of seminal reports and papers16, 17 Most of the world's growth in production and consumption of these foods comes from the developing countries; thus, developing countries will produce 63% of meat and 50% of milk in 2020. It is a global food activity, transforming the grain markets for animal feed. It also leads to resource degradation, rapid increases in feed grain imports, rapid concentration of production and consumption, and social change.

China provides an example of the shift in intake of ASF. The results are presented in depth elsewhere.8 In the past 50 y, using the per capita data from the nationally representative household survey series in China, we find that annual consumption of animal foods more than tripled—from a very low-level consumption of 11 kg per capita in 1952 to 38 kg per capita in 1992.8 There was a slow rate of increase prior to 1979, but thereafter, the rate of increase was much higher. From 1952 to 1979, intake increased only by 5.6 kg (0.2 kg annually), while it increased by 21 kg (1.6 kg annually) between 1979 and 1992. Of the subcomponents, meat and meat products increased from 8.4 to 20.3 kg, poultry and games from 0.6 to 2.3 kg, fish from 3.2 to 7.3 kg, and eggs from 2.0 to 7.8 kg per capita, per year. Urban residents' intake of ASF increased to 65.3 kg per capita in 1999.

Using in-depth individual intake data from the China Health and Nutrition Survey (CHNS), we get a clear picture of the shift in actual daily dietary intake toward increased animal foods. Urban residents' intake of animal foods per capita, per day in 1997 was higher than rural residents (178.2 g for urban vs 116.7 g for rural), and also showed a larger increase (46.7 g vs 36.8 g) from 1989 to 1997. The amount and growth of intake of animal foods was positively associated with income levels. Intake in the low-income group was 77.6 g per capita, per day in 1997, an increase of 18.6 g, while it was 123.2 and 19.6 g in the mid-income group, and 191.7 and 64.8 g per capita, per day for the high-income group. The intake level and the increase in the high-income group from 1989 to 1997 were almost three times that in the low-income group.

The US case as an example of developed country dynamics

The dietary trends in the United States are more complex than those found in the developing world. In the United States, daily caloric intake appears to be increasing—primarily from energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods and an increase in snacks.18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23 More meals are being consumed away from home18, 19, 20, 22 and portion sizes offered in restaurants have increased dramatically.14, 18, 24 There have been significant increases in salty snacks, fast foods,18, 19, 20 and added caloric sweeteners.14, 25 Fast foods generally are more energy dense, but lack many critical nutrients,26, 27 and might be linked with obesity.28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33 Fruit and vegetable consumption remains far below the recommended levels.14, 18

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Physical activity changes appear to be changing rapidly!

There are several linked changes in physical activity occurring jointly. One is a shift away from the high-energy expenditure activities such as farming, mining, and forestry towards the service sector. Elsewhere we have shown this large effect.34 Reduced energy expenditures in the same occupation are a second change. Other major changes relate to the modes of transportation and activity patterns during leisure hours. China again provides interesting illustrations. Table 1 shows that the proportion of urban adults (male and female) working in occupations where they participate in vigorous activity patterns has decreased. In rural areas, however, there has been a shift for some towards increased physical activity linked to holding multiple jobs and more intensive effort. For rural women, there is a shift towards a larger proportion engaged in more energy-intensive work, but there are also sections where light effort is increasing. In contrast, for rural men there is a small decrease in the proportion engaged in light work effort.


In China, 14% of households acquired a motorized vehicle between 1989 and 1997. In one study, we showed that the odds of being obese were 80% higher (P<0.05) in households for men and women who owned a motorized vehicle compared to those who did not own a vehicle.35

Television ownership has skyrocketed in China, leading to greater inactivity during leisure time.11 Among youth in the United States and Mexico, TV viewing is quite extensive but it is much lower in China, Russia, and the Philippines. The average child in the United States today spends more than 3 h a day watching television or playing video games and another 3 h with other forms of media such as movies and prerecorded music.36 So far, children in China spend significantly less time than their US counterparts with such sedentary media, but if US patterns prevail, we should expect that Chinese children will spend more time attending to the media in the future. Similarly, CHNS data for 1997 found that children aged 6–12 y watched TV at an average of 0.77 h per day, with slightly lower levels, 0.52 h per day, in children aged 13–18 y; overall, about 9% reporting watching TV for two or more hours per day. The overall physical activity pattern data are more limited among the youth. We have described physical activity patterns of youth in Russia, China, and the Philippines in a series of papers. In each case, we have found that walking to school is a major source of overall physical activity.37, 38, 39, 40 We have also found quite meaningful differences between countries. For instance, in the Philippines, youth of all ages are actively engaged in activities such as cleaning, washing, and other measures of home production, while in China, children are essentially excluded from such activities and study much more.40

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United States case study—insights into current dynamics in the higher-income world

Gordon-Larsen et al51 sought to examine patterns of change in obesity among US white, black, Hispanic, and Asian teens as they transition from adolescence to young adulthood. At baseline (1996) obesity prevalence (using IOTF cut points) was 10.9%. After 5 y, a substantial proportion of the adolescents nonobese at baseline had become obese (12.7% incidence) and remained obese (9.4% obesity maintenance), with a small proportion moving from obese to nonobese (1.6% reversal). Obesity incidence was especially high among non-Hispanic black (18.4%) and Hispanic females (15.8%) relative to white females (12.5%), as was obesity maintenance among black (16.1%) and Hispanic (10.9%) females relative to white females (8.5%). Importantly, these data represent approximately 15.1 million 13- to 20-y-old US schoolchildren. Thus, in the 5-y study period more than 1.9 million US adolescents became obese, more than 1.3 million adolescents remained obese, while only approximately one-quarter of a million adolescents became nonobese.

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Conclusion

We have summarized the profound global shift in obesity. The high obesity prevalence in adolescents is shown to be persistent into adulthood with high incidence in the transition to adulthood. We see from the US case that the increase in obesity from adolescence to adulthood is tremendous. Other countries following this trajectory are likely to see substantial adult obesity and its associated comorbidities if this trajectory is not curbed.

In addition, current data indicate that the levels of adult obesity far exceed those of children across all regions of the world. In addition, it seems that rapid increases in child and adolescent obesity have emerged in recent years, but they still do not equal the rate of increase found among adults.

We have briefly summarized some of the broader trends in diet in the developing and developed world with a focus on case studies from China and the United States. Underlying these trends are the major and rapid shifts in diets of the developing world, particularly with respect to greater intake of fat, caloric sweeteners, and ASF. In addition, declines in physical activity in leisure, transportation, and work associated with modernization play a substantial role. Greater amounts of sedentary behavior time associated with the worldwide use of mass media compound these effects.

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