The dual burden of malnutrition

A market in Bangalore, India. © Isabelle Aeberli, Philip Herter

How can it be that overweight people take in too many calories but at the same time too little iron? The food scientist Isabelle Aeberli has been looking for answers in the growing middle classes of Bangalore in India.

The differences between poor and rich are extreme in Bangalore. During the fourteen months of my research visit I lived in a gated apartment building with a swimming pool in the middle of it. There was even a fitness centre. But there are people there who clean the streets by hand every day for just a few dollars. Not even a technical assistant in the lab can earn nearly enough to be able to afford an apartment in a complex like mine.

"Overall, however, the wages of the Indian middle classes are growing in cities like Bangalore where the economy is flourishing. At the same time, the proportion of overweight and obese people is rising dramatically. That used to be a problem that you only encountered in countries with high living standards. Many obese people are taking in more calories than they use up, but they also often lack nutrients such as vitamins, zinc and iron. This dual burden is what interests me – how people can be overweight and yet lacking in micronutrients. It has been investigated before in the West, but what interests me is how overweight women in India are affected.

"I tackled this issue together with Anura V. Kurpad, Professor and Head of the Division of Nutrition at St. John’s Medical College and Hospital in Bangalore. We had worked together before on joint projects, so I already knew him. With the help of his team we were able to examine 150 women, mostly students or staff at the hospital.

(From "Horizons" no. 102, September 2014)