Developing countries that struggled with hunger not too long ago are now encountering another food-related problem that is strangely ironic: obesity.

A think tank in the UK, the Overseas Development Institute, released a study, "Future Diets," which detailed how one in three adults across the globe in 2008 (1.46 billion) were overweight or obese, which is a 23 percent jump from 1980. Almost two-thirds (904 million) of this heavier population is from the developing world, which means a threefold increase in this region over three decades. In comparison, higher income countries have had a 1.7-fold increase over the same amount of time.

“There has been a dramatic increase in the numbers of overweight or obese people in the past 30 years,” authors Sharada Keats and Steve Wiggins comment in the study. “Previously considered a problem in richer countries, the biggest rises are in middle income countries and the developing world.”

Keats and Wiggins found that North Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America match Europe with regard to the average portion of their population that is overweight or obese, which is approximately 58 percent. “'Future Diets' traces how the changes in diet — more fat, more meat, more sugar, and bigger portions — have led to a looming health crisis,” the authors explain. “It also looks at how policy-makers have tried to curb our eating excesses — with mixed results.”

One big way in how diets have changed is based on the rising consumption of sugars and sweeteners, which has gone up by 20 percent per person from 1961 to 2009, according to the study. “Diets are changing wherever incomes are rising in the developing world, with a marked shift from cereals and tubers to meat, fats and sugar, as well as fruit and vegetables,” Keats and Wiggins observed.

Some governments have been pro-active about the potential threat of the current “nutrition transition” by influencing the diets of their respective population. South Korea has carried out extensive campaigns and education initiatives that go as far as training women on how to prepare traditional, low-fat, high vegetable meals. As a result, South Koreans ate 300 percent more fruit and 10 percent more vegetables in 2009 compared to 1980. Denmark’s ban of trans-fats as far back as 2004 has resulted in a drop in heart disease rates.

But these countries are more an exception than the rule, according to the study authors. “There seems to be little will among public and leaders to take the determined action that is needed to influence future diets, but that may change in the face of the serious health implications,” they wrote. Keats and Wiggins suggested a multi-pronged approach involving education, prices, and regulation.

Drastic action is certainly needed as several studies have found the growing health consequences of changing eating habits around the world. One 2012 study in The Lancet, the Global Burden of Disease, found that obesity kills three-times as many people than those who die from malnutrition. One of the authors of the study, Majid Ezzati, who is chair of global environmental health at Imperial College London, told the Telegraph, “We have gone from a world 20 years ago where people weren’t getting enough to eat to a world now where too much food and unhealthy food — even in developing countries — is making us sick.”

Source: Keats S, Wiggins S. Future diets: Implications for agriculture and food prices. Overseas Development Institute. 2014.