Obesity and poverty: a new public health challenge


Pan American Health Organization

Publication details

Editors: Manuel Peña, Jorge Bacallao
Number of pages: 124
Publication date: 2000
Languages: English, Spanish
WHO reference number: 92 7 511576 1



A collection of twelve research articles that explore the many complex links between low socioeconomic status and the growing prevalence of obesity in Latin America and the Caribbean. Authored by leading experts in the nutritional sciences, the articles cite compelling evidence that obesity in poor populations has strikingly different causes and consequences than obesity seen in affluent societies. All articles share a public health perspective aimed at identifying causative factors that can help shape effective policies.

The book opens with four articles focused on the economic, sociocultural, and environmental determinants of obesity. The first reviews the evidence of growing obesity in Latin America and the Caribbean, and considers why obesity is most prevalent in the poorest socioeconomic sectors, where levels of co-existing nutrient deficiencies may likewise be high. This question is further explored in the second article, which cites abundant evidence that energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods are chosen because they are cheap, produce satiety, and are widely promoted and readily available.

Explanations for the increased vulnerability of poor women to obesity are also presented. Current theories of the causes of obesity are reviewed in the third article, which addresses the significance of genetic determinants, the distribution of body fat in obesity, and the influence of social factors, particularly socioeconomic status.

The first part concludes with a study of the impact of increasing urbanization on patterns of physical activity. Part two includes three case studies describing the epidemiological transition in Chile, Cuba, and Brazil, followed by a proposed typology for grouping Latin American and Caribbean countries according to different phases in the epidemiological transition.

The two articles in part three review some of the special methodological problems raised in efforts to calculate the incidence and average duration of obesity and develop appropriate anthropometric indicators. The two articles in the final part evaluate the evidence suggesting that malnutrition during fetal development and early childhood may increase the risk of obesity in later life. The public health implications, particularly concerning increased incidence of diet-related chronic diseases, are also critically assessed