Obesity is surpassing malnutrition as a major health problem in many parts of the world.Weight problems have long been recognized as a health hazard in the United States, Europe and other industrialized countries, but in recent years the same worries have begun to emerge in many less well-off places.

?Obesity has penetrated the remotest places on Earth,? says Stanley Ulijaszek of the University of Oxford. However, a recent Vatican conference concluded that about 800 million people worldwide are still malnourished, while the International Obesity Taskforce estimates that 300 million people are obese.

In many parts of the world, malnutrition and obesity now exist together, one a problem of the very poor, the other of the growing middle class. ?The recognition that this is a worldwide problem is very recent,? says Marquise Lavelle of the University of Rhode Island.

Ulijaszek says obesity has begun to appear in the Purari delta of rural Papua New Guinea, where there was none at all in 1980. In the latest survey, conducted five years ago, 1 percent of men and 5 percent of women were found to be obese. In parts of the Pacific islands, obesity has been known for at least 50 years, but it has substantially increased in recent times to levels that Ulijaszek calls ?astonishingly high.? In Rarotonga, capital of the Cook Islands, 14 percent of men and 44 percent of women were obese in 1966. Now 52 percent of men and 57 percent of women there are obese.

Lavelle surveyed weight in South Africa and rural Australia three years ago and found more signs of a weight problem. In Cape Town, 12 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys were considered overweight. In much poorer rural Klein Karoo, just 1 percent of boys and 2 percent of girls weighed this much. In a similar survey among nomadic people in the central desert of Australia, she found that about 4 percent of children and 15 percent of adults are obese.

The obesity is blamed on the growing worldwide availability of high-calorie foods and less physically demanding jobs. But even though people might be better off obese than malnourished, the trend toward fatness worries many health experts. ?We are concerned about this because of the higher disease rates that go with obesity,? says Lavelle. Obesity increases the risk of diabetes, which is rising rapidly in many parts of the world.

Some of the most extreme weight gains are seen among people who move from poor countries to places like the United States, where high-fat food is plentiful. Dr. Barry Bogin of the University of Michigan-Dearborn studied Mayan children moving from Guatemala to Los Angeles and rural central Florida and found that nearly half are overweight and 42 percent are obese. By comparison, 14 percent of white and black children in the United States are overweight or obese.

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This data can be scary for those of us who are compelled to raid the refrigerator in the middle of the night. Now scientists say compulsive snackers may be suffering from a medical problem. Scientists have discovered biochemical differences in the bodies of people who experience uncontrollable urges to eat late at night.

Doctors named the problem Night Eating Syndrome in the 1950s when they discovered that between one and two per cent of people admit to regularly raiding their refrigerators at night. Symptoms include having no appetite for breakfast and eating half or more of the day?s food after 7 p.m. Sufferers wake up at night hungry and their night time feasts often consist of carbohydrate rich foods.

It has been discovered that many people with the syndrome are stressed. A team of doctors at the University of Tromso, Norway found differences in the way the snackers? bodies react to cortisol, which is known as the stress hormone.

Excess levels of cortisol in fat cells could be a major cause of heart disease for people who tend to gain weight around their stomachs. Concentrations of cortisol within cells are two or three times more active in people with apple shapes.

Having an apple rather than pear shape is a major risk factor for diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. Scientists from Edinburgh University in Scotland found that knocking out the enzyme responsible for the release of cortisol within fat reduces the risks for ?apple-shaped? people.

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