Obesity Risk Higher for Women in Low-Income Countries

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WASHINGTON – Women in low- and middle-income countries, especially in the sub-Saharan region, may be 10 times more likely to be obese or have heart problems than their male counterparts, according to a large meta-analysis published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

Obesity is a chronic disease characterized by a person having excess body fat or abnormal fat deposition. People with obesity are at increased risk for other serious diseases and health problems.

Obesity kills at least 2.8 million people a year, but the public still doesn’t recognize it as a disease, and anti-obesity medications are still underprescribed and difficult to obtain. Obesity is preventable, but the disease has nearly tripled since 1975, according to the World Health Organization. In 2016, 52% of adults and more than 340 million children and teens were believed to be overweight or obese.

“Our findings are important because they call for urgent actions aimed at raising awareness, prevention, treatment and control of obesity among women in low- and middle-income countries,” said study author Thaís Rocha, MD, Ph.D., of the University of Birmingham in Birmingham, United Kingdom

The researchers included 3,916,276 people in the meta-analysis and found that obesity does not manifest equally among women and men in low- and middle-income countries, with women 2 to 3 times more likely to be affected than men. They found that the greatest disparity in the risk of obesity between women and men is in the sub-Saharan region, where women are up to ten times more likely to be obese than men.

Senior study author Shakila Thangaratinam, MD, Ph.D., from the University of Birmingham said: “For the first time, we are able to assess the extent of poor metabolic health faced by women compared to men in low- and middle-income groups. Funders and policymakers should implement women-targeted interventions that address the underlying social, cultural and behavioral factors to improve their long-term metabolic health.”

The authors shared a few examples of the factors contributing to the higher rates of obesity in these women, including:

  • Weight gain during pregnancy and menopause.
  • Beliefs that larger body types indicate high socio-economic status, and fertility-related obesity in women as a sign of ‘wealth and health’.
  • The risk of obesity appears to be positively and significantly associated with childhood deprivation in women, but not in men.
  • Women are also more likely than men to be affected by other factors that predispose them to obesity, such as poor dietary habits, sedentary lifestyles and price inflation.

The authors of this study are Eka Melson from the University of Birmingham; Javier Zamora from the University of Birmingham, Ramon and Cajal University Hospital (IRYCIS) and the CIBERESP Institute of Health Carlos III in Madrid, Spain; Borja Fernandez-Felix of the CIBERESP Charles III Health Institute; and Wiebke Arlt of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Medical Sciences and Imperial College London, UK

The study was funded by the Wellcome Trust and the NIHR Birmingham Biomedical Research Centre.

The manuscript, “Sex-Specific Obesity and Cardiometabolic Disease Risks in Low- and Middle-Income Countries: A Meta-Analysis Involving 3,916,276 Individuals,” was published online.

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