Overweight women outnumber underweight or underfed women worldwide, even in developing countries and rural areas, according to a new study.

Researchers found overweight women exceeded underweight women in well over half of the 36 developing countries studied. Overall, 32 percent of urban women in the developing countries were classified as overweight compared with less than 10 percent of urban or rural women who were underweight.

Although poor countries still lag behind developed ones in the obesity epidemic (search), researchers say growing numbers of overweight women present a new health concern for countries where the main health threat used to be underfed and underweight women.

The study showed underweight women predominated only in rural areas of the least developed countries, such as India.

Overweight Women Expanding Worldwide

In the study, researchers compared data on body mass index (search) (BMI, a measure of weight in relation to height used to indicate overweight) collected from 36 developing countries from 1992 to 2000, including nearly 150,000 women aged 20-49 years. The countries included 19 in sub-Saharan Africa, eight in Latin America, four in North Africa and the Middle East, China, India, and the former Soviet republics.

A BMI of 18.5 or lower was considered underweight, according to international measures, and a BMI of 25 or more was considered overweight. Using those measures, a woman 5 feet 5 inches tall would be considered underweight if she weighed 111 pounds or less and overweight if she weighed 146 pounds or more.

The results appear in the March issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Overall, the study showed that the rates of being overweight among urban women ranged from 10 to 70 percent, but 33 of the 36 countries reported a rate of more than 20 percent and 10 had a rates of more than 50 percent.

The percentage of overweight women was generally twice as high in urban areas than rural areas, but the rates of overweight rural women were also substantial. The rates of overweight rural women were more than 20 percent in half of the countries studied.

Researchers found that the more developed or urbanized the countries were, the higher the rates of overweight women and the smaller the disparities in weight between urban vs. rural women.

For example, in more-developed countries, the prevalence of overweight women was 51 percent and 38 percent among urban and rural women with lower incomes.

Researchers say the results show that although childhood malnutrition is still a problem in some parts of the developing world, far fewer countries face such a burden of undernutrition in young women. They say more studies are needed on the rates of men and children that are underweight and overweight in developing nations to better understand the health issues facing these groups.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCE: Mendez, M. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, March 2005; vol 81: pp 714-721.