Obesity in Children Challenges Developing Nations

Posted: May 22, 2009 at 11:30 am, Last Updated: May 28, 2009 at 12:00 pm

By Marjorie Musick

Lisa Pawloski

Lisa Pawloski

Once thought to be a strictly American phenomenon, childhood obesity rates are soaring in nations still plagued with hunger and poverty.

According to World Health Organization statistics, globally at least 20 million children under the age of five were overweight in 2005, putting them at risk for a number of chronic diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

Mason nutritional anthropologist Lisa Pawloski has studied biocultural approaches to nutrition and health among children and adolescents and has found that several factors contribute to the obesity phenomenon.

These include a rise in the number of two-income families, a dietary shift increasing the intake of foods high in fat and sugars, the rapid expansion of fast-food restaurants in developing nations and a trend toward decreased physical activity.

“Countries such as Chile and Thailand are going through huge economic changes. The economic situation in those nations has improved dramatically in the past 30 years,” says Pawloski, chair of the College of Health and Human Services’ Department of Global and Community Health.

“Unfortunately, a negative side effect of this [growth] is a surge in obesity among kids and teenagers.”

Cultural Customs Affect Eating Behavior

Pawloski has always been fascinated by cultural customs and social relationships that influence human behavior.

Pawloski at work taking measurements in a Mali village.

Pawloski at work taking measurements in a Mali village.

“Humans do not instinctively know what types of food they should be eating. Eating behaviors are learned, and culture definitely plays a role in our eating behaviors,” she says.

A widely published scholar and presenter, Pawloski has been investigating global trends of childhood obesity since 1997 when, as a Fulbright Scholar, she conducted a study examining the nutritional status, growth and development of adolescent girls from the Ségou Region in Mali, West Africa.

She has since conducted research into the biocultural aspects of health and nutrition among Malian adolescent immigrants living in Paris, France, and the nutritional behaviors and growth among Nicaraguan adolescent girls.

In 2005, Pawloski received a second Fulbright to continue her analysis of nutrition and dietary behaviors among adolescents in suburban Bangkok, Thailand.

In a joint venture with the Catholic University in Santiago, Chile, Pawloski recently concluded a study of childhood obesity in that country.

The government, which had effectively overcome undernutrition among its citizens through an aggressive public health and nutrition campaign, is now seeking solutions to a childhood obesity epidemic.

“One of the major issues underlying nutrition and undernutrition is selecting the right foods,” says Pawloski.

“In Chile, we studied the self-care deficit theory, which states that by educating children about making healthy eating choices and educating parents on how to encourage those behaviors, children may have better success in sustaining a healthy weight.”

Education and Parental Involvement Are Key

Pawloski notes that in each country where she has worked, she has found a different set of challenges resulting from cultural and environmental influences.

“In Thailand, I found that a greater number of children in primary schools are obese compared with children in secondary schools. Furthermore, obesity is more prevalent in boys than girls. Therefore, targeting younger children and developing interventions specifically for young boys may be more effective.”

In Nicaragua, one of the major issues is access to fruits and vegetables within the neighborhood, she says.

“Fruits and vegetables are not sold at local markets, but at larger markets that are difficult to get to because of lack of transportation and lack of sidewalks causing safety issues.

Also, families are hesitant to grow their own gardens because of a lack of space and fear of neighbors poaching their gardens.”

However, Pawloski is confident that obesity can be overcome through education and parental involvement. She is currently working with colleagues on a project in Costa Rica that will involve just such a nutrition intervention.

“We believe that the promotion of healthy diets, improved eating behaviors that include a reduction of high-calorie snacks and increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, along with greater exercise, will dramatically reduce the risk of both obesity and chronic disease among children.”

This article originally appeared in Mason Research 2009.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu