Increased consumption of sugar, fats, and a more sedentary lifestyle have led to rising levels of obesity in the United States and parts of Europe. According a report from the UK based think tank, Overseas Development Institute (ODI), this trend may also be occurring throughout the developing world. Along with exploring the increasing rates of obesity, Future Diets, considers how the rising meat and dairy demands may be met in the coming years.

Although under-nutrition remains a problem, it can often coexist with obesity within the same country or even the same household. The majority of people who are obese or overweight has shifted from the developed to the developing world. The report found that since 1980 the number of obese and overweight adults has nearly quadrupled in the developing world and seem to be increasing the fastest in countries where incomes were rising, such as Egypt and Mexico.

Rising incomes are also linked to increased meat consumption in countries including China, Brazil, and the United States. In order to anticipate potential changes, Future Diet’s author, Steve Wiggins, says a discussion about what he calls “meat justice” needs to be initiated. “It would be one of those conversations about if there’s a limited amount of meat that can be produced at relatively low costs in the world, should we have entitlements purely by the wallet, purely by people’s incomes and ability to command it, or should it be distributed with some respect to nutritional need and so on.”

He says the conversation about meat justice would resemble another much debated issue. “It is a facsimile of what has to happen with climate change--the very difficult conversation that has to be had about who can have what emissions in a future world. The meat conversation will be rather similar to that. With only one planet to work with and 9 billion people on it, what levels of material consumption can we have? And how will we distribute those levels of material consumption? Those are conversations which have virtually no precedent.”

Increased incomes don’t solely lead to more consumption of meat. In other middle income countries such as India, which has a large percentage of vegetarians, greater affluence has led to only limited increases of meat but greater amounts of milk and dairy. In Thailand, starchy roots, pulses, and most notably, fruit consumption, has increased whereas Peruvian diet is marked for its lack of change; their diet has managed to stay fairly consistent.

“We’ve got regional differences that we’re seeing and country-wide differences that says there’s nothing inevitable about the processes. You know, we’re not all going to end up with the same diet,” says Wiggins. “Things have obviously happened in certain parts of the world like southeast Asia and South Korea that have steered them towards one particular diet and things have clearly happened in Mexico and Egypt that have steered them in the other.”

One example included in the report that demonstrates how diets can be led in certain directions comes from South Korea. The government initiated a campaign that gave newly married women a two week training course that focused on retaining healthful components of traditional diets. The low levels of fat intake and the high fruit and vegetable consumption were perceived to be positive but, as Wiggins notes, more recent research illustrates the dynamic nature of diets.

Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has found that the opening of South Korea to global food markets has shifted its diet in a new direction. Although vegetable consumption remains relatively high, factors including membership in the World Trade Organization and the increasing presence of fast food restaurants and processed foods have contributed to dietary changes including increased levels of fat and increased consumption of calories from sugar sweetened beverages.

Globalization and liberalization of trade has also had an impact on diets in other countries, including Mexico, which has high rates of obesity and type-2 diabetes. Although it was too recent to be included in the report, Wiggins believes it’s important to see what happens with their soda tax. He thinks most governments have been conservative in their approach and likens present day food issues to those of tobacco and alcohol that occurred fifty years ago. “I think we have to say that they’ve been quite cautious with their responses so far and I’m not surprised that they’ve been quite cautious. I wouldn’t like to be a politician leading the charge on this and not many people like the idea of the state interfering in diet choice. But they have been timid so far and what that means is we don’t yet know what would happen if we had slightly bolder legislation.”

Image Credits: photo taken by author.