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Asia falls foul to fat

China is also suffering from a upsurge in obesity, like 28-year-old Huang Chi in Shanghai -- an affluent urban center.
China is also suffering from a upsurge in obesity, like 28-year-old Huang Chi in Shanghai -- an affluent urban center.  

Nick Easen in Hong Kong

Boston, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Obesity was once an exclusively "Western" disease, but not any more, people falling foul to fat now exist in the far corners of the globe, say scientists.

South Pacific islanders and desert-dwelling Australians are all beginning to battle the bulge as sedentary jobs and energy-rich foods spread the epidemic across the region.

"People are not immune to this epidemic just because they live in non-industrial or poor populations," said Marquisa La Velle of the University of Rhode Island in a statement.

Obesity is now joining, and in some cases even overtaking, the health challenges posed by malnutrition and infectious disease to lower and middle income countries in Asia.

At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston, U.S., scientists voiced their concerns that previously unaffected populations, and particularly children were succumbing to obesity.

Scientists put the rise in obesity down to rapid shifts in urbanization, technology, food processing, and even leisure time.

Obesity was also highlighted as being on the upswing among non-western immigrants -- many of whom are Asians -- to industrialized countries.

"The recognition that this is a world-wide problem is very recent," said Lavelle at the meeting reiterating that it was not just an Asian problem, but one stretching across the globe.

Battling the bulge

One area in the region, the South Pacific, which once had physically active and hungry cultures, may now have some of the world's highest rates of obesity.

In Rarotonga, capital of the Cook Islands, 14 percent of men and 44 percent of women were obese in 1966, more recently this rose to 52 percent of men and 57 percent of women, Stanley Ulijaszek of the University of Oxford, U.K., said at the AAAS meeting.

Lavelle surveyed weight amongst the nomadic people of the central desert of Australia, where again obesity accounted for 4 percent of children and 15 percent of adults.

Also in rural Papua New Guinea, the incidence of overweight people is on the rise due to higher incomes and connections to urban centers.

In the Purari delta area, the latest survey shows one percent of men and five percent of women were found to be obese where there was none in 1980.

The Indian sub-continent is another example, yet here high levels of malnutrition are still evident in some rural areas, yet in urban centers an emerging sedentary middle class is developing with an associated rise in obesity.

Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina at the meeting suggested that countries still combating the problems of under-nutrition need to give "far greater emphasis" to the prevention of obesity-related diseases.

Ironically in many Asian cultures that have traditionally suffered from food shortages, large body size is associated with social and financial success.

However, with a rise in obesity in the region, scientists hope that attitudes will change before globalization changes diets to the point that the fat epidemic gets out of control.


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