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60-Nation Survey Finds 18 Million Women Dangerously Underweight

Women wait to load their carts with bags of rice and bottles of cooking oil at a food distribution center run by the Spanish NGO Accion contra el Hambre (Action Against Hunger) in Tarenguel, Gorgol region, Mauritania, May 30, 2012.

An analysis conducted by Canadian researchers has found that more than 18 million women in low- and middle-income countries are severely underweight.

The study looked at data from 60 countries, a representative sample of more than a half-million women in all. Some 1.8 percent of women — about one in 55 — had a body mass index of less than 16.

BMI is a standard measure of weight relative to height; a reading in the range of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered healthy, according to U.S. health agencies, and a rating below 16 is considered a danger flag. Women with a BMI below 16 are more likely to have a variety of health problems and have higher death rates.

Fahad Razak of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto was the lead author of the new study, which analyzed surveys going back to 1993. "What we found was that over 18 million women currently are affected," he said. "So there’s over 18 million severely underweight women in these countries, and there’s more than 14 million in India alone.”

That meant more than 6 percent of women in India were in the severely underweight category. Ranking behind India in severity were Bangladesh, Madagascar, East Timor and Senegal.

Albania, Bolivia, Egypt, Peru, Swaziland and Turkey had notably low rates of women with BMIs under 16.

While the surveys covered 60 countries, there were notable gaps. Among the nations not included were China, Indonesia and Mexico.

Razak said he was not surprised to see how many women suffered from severe undernutrition. It was when he looked at the history of the problem that he found an unexpected trend going back 20 years.

“The fact that levels haven’t improved in the majority of countries is quite shocking," he said. "And when we’ve shown this work to other scientists, everyone’s been very surprised. No one, no one really expected this.”

That said, Razak noted that in India and Bangladesh, the countries with the most women in this category, the percentage of women affected has been going down.

The research paper by Razak and his colleagues was published in JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association.