Rural Areas Drive Global Obesity

To anyone working in obesity, it is no secret that obesity is now far more common in rural (and suburban) areas (at least in industrialised countries) than in big cities. This may appear counterintuitive, as access to food services is much greater and easier in cities than in rural areas. In contrast, there is a wide-spread assumption that people living in rural areas mainly consume produce from their own farms and gardens, and have less access to ultra-processed and packaged food.

Now, a paper by the international NCD Risk Factor Collaboration, published in Nature, shows that rural obesity, even in many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), is rising much faster than in urban populations.

The study collates 2,009 population-based studies, with measurements of height and weight in more than 112 million adults, to report national, regional and global trends in mean BMI segregated by place of residence (a rural or urban area) from 1985 to 2017. 

The data shows that, with the exception of women in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 55% of the global rise in mean BMI from 1985 to 2017—and more than 80% in some low- and middle-income regions—was due to increases in BMI in rural areas.

Thus, “these trends have in turn resulted in a closing—and in some countries reversal—of the gap in BMI between urban and rural areas in low- and middle-income countries, especially for women. In high-income and industrialized countries, we noted a persistently higher rural BMI, especially for women.” 

The authors attribute this trend to the urbanisation of rural life, which includes not only the decreased need for physical labour thanks to agricultural mechanisation, dependence on cars, rising income, and the increased availability and consumption of highly processed calorie-dense foods.

In contrast, “The lower urban BMI in high-income and industrialized countries reflects a growing rural economic and social disadvantage, including lower education and income, lower availability and higher price of healthy and fresh foods, less access to, and use of, public transport and walking than in cities, and limited availability of facilities for sports and recreational activity, which account for a significant share of overall physical activity in high-income and industrialized countries.

Clearly, this alarming trend poses new challenges for public health initiatives to curb the obesity epidemic, which have thus far largely (albeit with little effect), focussed on urban populations.

Although not discussed in the paper, this trend also poses new challenges for the health care system, which is even less poised to deliver evidence-based obesity treatments, which may often require the support of specialists (e.g. dietitians, obesity specialists, mental health professionals, or even surgeons), than in urban centres.

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