Auckland academic urges policy makers to view whole picture when considering obesity in developing countries

29 July 2011

A leading researcher and former Director of The University of Auckland’s Liggins Institute Professor Sir Peter Gluckman is the lead author on a commentary paper published today in the high profile journal Science Translational Medicine.

Obesity and its consequent health, social and economic costs are well recognised in the developed world. The paper issues a timely warning ahead of a September meeting of the United Nations General Assembly to address the significant burden which obesity now poses for developing countries.

Gluckman and colleagues warn “it is crucial that we apply lessons from the failure of wealthy countries to curb obesity and not extend ineffective strategies to the developing world.”

The commentary points out the complex biological and cultural issues which contribute to the problem. They suggest the Summit will be a wasted opportunity if its outcome is merely to focus on adult life-style changes such as weight loss, exercise and smoking.

The authors from New Zealand, United Kingdom, Australia and Jamaica have long been involved in biological and medical research showing there are important components to the pathways to obesity which appear in early life , both before children are born and infancy. Sir Peter and fellow author Professor Mark Hanson were contributing investigators to a recent UK study which showed the mechanism through which mothers’ diets during pregnancy were linked to how fat their children were nine years later.

“We now have a good understanding of how factors during development influence the adult body-type,” says Professor Gluckman. “However they must be viewed alongside cultural perceptions and economic realities to get a full picture of the enormity of the problem which policy makers must address in the developing world.”

The authors cite a number of factors which contribute to the complexity of the issue: • Cultural, sociological, spiritual and emotional influences associated with food and eating mean different societies have widely varying perceptions of what is an ideal body shape. • Populations and individuals have different patterns of fat deposition, not all of which are associated with disease, so individual risk is often poorly understood. • Obesity and its associated conditions develop over a lengthy period making it difficult for people to commit to an immediate cost when benefits may not be seen for some years. • Economic transition towards affluence gives many developing countries greater access to refined foods which offer lower nutritional value but are cheaper than high quality fresh foods.

Despite the success of some legislative and economic measures to reduce smoking, state interventions to control food intake and exercise can be viewed as infringing individual rights. Rather, the authors advocate “partnerships between academic and public health sectors and the food industry to develop healthy nutrition and promote disease-prevention practices.”

They suggest that policy makers need to better understand the biological basis of obesity in order to formulate effective national strategies to stem the epidemic.

There is compelling evidence that during development an embryo, fetus or infant takes (nutritional) signals from its environment to set patterns of metabolism and energy usage that will contribute to its adult physiology and body-type.

The authors suggest that long term benefit would come from focusing attention on the health and nutrition of mothers and young children. Developmental strategies that are sensitive and appropriate for specific populations could be built on to those already addressing women’s and infants’ health through the Millennium Development Goals.

They encourage Summit leaders to adopt such a developmental agenda as a means of progressing efforts to reduce the burden of obesity-associated diseases, especially in countries that are undergoing socioeconomic transitions.

ENDS

Media contact: Pandora Carlyon, Communications Manager Liggins Institute. +64 9 923 2305; p.carlyon@auckland.ac.nz