Obesity is a major public health problem in all industrialized countries and a burgeoning problem in developing countries, especially throughout Asia, Latin America and parts of Africa, despite the widespread presence of undernutrition.
"Although the statistics aren´t comprehensive in all developing countries, there are indications that childhood and adolescent obesity is becoming a serious problem," says Nahla Hwalla, Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. "In some countries, childhood obesity has doubled, in others it has tripled over the last 10 years."
Obesity is a key risk factor in the progression of chronic and non-communicable diseases like diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke, osteoporosis and some cancers.
As part of a multi-faceted approach to malnutrition in Member States, the IAEA is spearheading a research project in which 11 developing countries are measuring body composition and assessing risk factors for future development of heart disease and diabetes in obese adolescents.
"Growth patterns and weight in childhood are indicators of future health risk," says Christine Slater, of the IAEA´s Nutrition and Health-related Environmental Studies Section.
Researchers in the 11 countries measure blood pressure, blood lipids (fat in the bloodstream), cholesterol and waist circumference; along with assessing muscle mass and fat by using nuclear techniques.
"When the data analysis is complete, we will be able to advise health authorities that there is a link between childhood obesity and future risk of chronic disease. It´s troubling because this used to be something only evident in adults. Governments need to take action now by implementing programmes to encourage healthy eating and increase physical activity in children," says Slater.
The project, which has been going on for three years, will end in 2010, and the data that has been collected will be combined and analysed, providing further evidence that a worrying trend is developing among children and teens.
Health professionals believe that obesity is a problem. However, people in many developing countries see fatness as an indicator of health and wellbeing.
"In our countries in the Middle East for example, it´s not recognised as a problem that needs fixing. Fat children are not considered unhealthy," says Hwalla. "But with the data we´re now collecting, we will be able to convince governments that might be sceptical that there is reason for genuine concern."
According to the World Health Organisation, the number of people in the developing world with diabetes will reach 228 million in 2025.
Sixty percent of the burden of chronic diseases will occur in developing countries. Cardiovascular diseases for instance are now more numerous in India and China than in all the economically developed countries put together.
"All countries, and developing countries in particular, have a range of health-related problems competing for limited government funding. Childhood obesity can be de-prioritised in favour of diseases deemed to be of greater immediate risk. But the data shows that the money needed to treat future health problems is much more than what is needed for prevention now," says Andrew Hills, of Queensland University of Technology´s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation.
The countries participating in the project are Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Iran, Jamaica, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Lebanon and Thailand.
Body composition assessment is the study of fat in relation to muscle mass in the body.
The IAEA is currently supporting projects on body composition assessment and total energy expenditure to address a wide range of priority areas in nutrition, including childhood obesity, acute severe malnutrition and the relationship between nutrition and HIV/AIDS in Latin America, Asia and Africa.