Thin Wallets, Fat Bodies: Why Belarus Leads Europe on Female Obesity

Only eight McDonalds restaurants operate in Belarus, and fast food remains a rare treat for most residents.

Obesity, however, is on the rise. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Belarus leads Europe in the share of obese and overweight women.

Belarusians’ diet to a large extent accounts for their expanding waistlines.

Even as Belarusians spend most of their money on food, they eat unhealthy meals due to a combination of the lack of knowledge about nutrition. High food prices contribute to the problem.

Tellingly, Belarus leads the world in per capita potato consumption. As more cheap, fast food restaurants open throughout the country, Belarusians' girths will continue to expand.

Obesity is a Growing Problem

WHO relies on information from body mass index (BMI) tests, defined as a weight-to-height ratio, to measure excessive weight. A BMI of 25 means overweight; a BMI of 30 means obese.

By this measure, nearly 70% of Belarusian women over the age of 15 carry too much weight. Obesity is slightly less prevalent among Belarusian men: “only” 63.7% of men suffer from excess weight, according to WHO.

Alarmingly, Belarus leads all other East and West European states in female obesity. “Only” 49% of Ukrainian and only 44% of Polish women are obese or overweight.

Female obesity rates in the United States are 6% higher than in Belarus.

The problem is not only affecting adults, but also children. Over the last ten years, the share of overweight or obese children and teenagers has grown twofold.

Today, every fourth child suffers from excess weight.

Unhealthy Diet: We are What We Eat?

What accounts for this worrisome trend? One arguably positive consequence of Belarus’ isolation has been the scarcity of Western fast food restaurant chains. Furthermore, due to low incomes, most Belarusians do not frequent cafes, bars, and restaurants.

Instead, a homemade unhealthy diet has contributed the prevalence of obesity in Belarus. The diet of a typical Belarusian centres around fatty dairy and meat products. Belarusians also eat large amounts of potatoes and bread.

Belarusians pride themselves when serving the traditional meal of draniki, or pancakes made from grated potatoes, with machanka, a high-calorie sauce made with pork, sausage, sliced onion, sour cream and flour.

In fact, Belarus leads not only in obesity among women, but also in potato consumption. In 2005, Belarusians consumed 181 kg of potatoes per capita.

For comparison, even their closest neighbours eat differently: Ukrainians consume “only” 136 kg per capita, and Poles and Russians – only “131” kg per capita, according to the data provided by Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO).

An unhealthy diet affects not only Belarusians’ weight, but also their overall health and even their longevity. According to the Ministry of Health of Belarus, Belarusians die from diseases of the digestive organs twice as often as other Europeans.

Alarmingly, Belarusians also lead the continent in other unhealthy habits, such as smoking and drinking.

Do Thinner Wallets Lead to Fatter Waistlines?

While eating their unhealthy meals, Belarusians spend a substantial part of their income on food. According to the household survey conducted by the Belarusian National Statistics Committee in the first quarter of 2014, food accounts for 41.4% of all expenditures of a typical Belarusian household. Belarusians spend one third of this amount on meat.

A 2013 survey conducted by the Institute of Sociology of National Academy of Sciences in 15 small towns presents a far more worrisome picture.

According to this survey, every fifth household spends 70-90% of its income on food and every third household spends 50-70% of household income on food.

Not surprisingly, the survey also indicates that two thirds of the respondents worry about food prices.

A 2012 RIA rating, compiled by the RIA Novosti rating agency using data provided by the statistics committees of 40 countries in Europe, allows us to see how Belarus stacks up against other European states.

Post-Soviet states all cluster at the very bottom of RIA rating, as their citizens spend the greatest share of their income on food. Wealthy western European states ranked highest because they spend far smaller shares of income on food.

RIA rating suggests that the share of income spent on food is roughly inversely proportional to the level of income. A reverse trend describes the expenditures on alcohol and tobacco. These items tend to be disproportionately cheap in countries with low-income levels.

Fast Food Forward

Growing incomes will not improve Belarusians’ health in the short run. Instead, the Belarusian diet may further deteriorate in the coming years as they discover the pleasures of eating out.

Today, about 12,500 catering establishments operate in Belarus. About 2,000 of them are in Minsk. Food service is one of the sectors of the economy that is wide open to private entrepreneurs. In the last decade, domestic private ownership has steadily overtaken state ownership.

Currently, there are about 790 Belarusians per one catering establishment. In the US, there are about 150 people per one catering establishment.

In Europe – 300 people per one catering establishment. In other words, the food service market in Belarus has room to grow. Its growth may also expand Belarusians' waistlines.

In 2012, Belarus had only 43 fast-food restaurants. This will change, however, as a growing number of international fast food companies are seeking entry in the Belarusian market. Among them is the well-known fast-food franchise Kentucky Fried Chicken, or KFC, which has already opened about 250 restaurants in the CIS region.

Russian Embargo and the Belarusian Food Market

Last week, Russia imposed an embargo on food products from the EU and the US, reacting to Western sanctions over its policies in Ukraine.

Moscow banned imports on beef, pork, fruit and vegetable produce, poultry, fish, cheese, milk and dairy products from the European Union, United States, Australia, Canada and Norway.

Belarusian officials seemed to rejoice at the news, vowing to increase exports of Belarusian foodstuffs to Russia and likening this opportunity to 19th century gold-rush in Klondike, Canada.

While Belarusian producers will benefit from the growing demand for Belarusian food in Russia, Belarusian consumers may suffer.

A sharp rise in Belarusian exports will raise the food prices in the internal food market. Since most of Belarusian produce already make their way to Russia, the fastest way to increase exports is by reducing the supply of Belarusian produce at home.

If the food prices rise or incomes fall, no amount of nutrition education will wean Belarusians off their bread-and-potato diet.

Volha Charnysh is an analyst with the Ostrogorski Centre, the Executive Editor of Belarus Digest and a PhD Candidate in Government at Harvard University.

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