A look into what a celebrity and politics can do to combat global obesity
By: Abigail Reese
For the first time in human history, being obese is a larger global problem than going hungry, maintains the Global Burden of Disease report (New Scientist December 2012). The problem of global obesity is so wide-spread and close to home that it has even changed our dictionary. As obesity rates continue to climb, the World Health Organization has begun to speak of the trend as “globesity.” The issue of globesity is now considered an epidemic and is recognized by medical dictionaries alike.
Just decades ago, discussion of an impending global pandemic of obesity was thought of as absurd. But now, with diets relying heavily upon processed foods, edible oils and sugar-sweetened beverages, it is a common household reality. According to a recent World Health Organization (WHO) study, about 1.6 billion people globally are overweight or obese. Diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension, as well as an increase in heart attacks are plaguing hospitals around the globe and are a few of the indicators that show there is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.
The celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, has decided to take a stand and brought his anti-obesity campaign to the United Nations. Oliver has previously raised awareness of healthy eating in the UK with his School Dinners show and with his Ministry of Food series in the US, has written to secretary general Ban-Ki Moon to ask the UN to pressure governments to support his weight loss plans.
In a letter published online, Oliver wrote: “[We will soon have] a global diet of fast and processed food and drink. I have seen young mothers feeding toddlers cola through a feeding bottle because they don’t understand good nutrition.
“I’ve shown simple fresh vegetables to teenage students in the United Kingdom and America and they can’t identify a cucumber or an aubergine or a pear. If parents can’t cook, how can they feed themselves and their growing families?”
Here in America, the problem doesn’t seem that we can’t cook or that we’re not educated on health; there’s simply an over-abundance of food. People rarely go to bed hungry, but sometimes finding a healthy meal is hard because parents’ incomes are not financially stable enough to fulfill the family’s needs. When an impoverished mother goes to the store to buy flour she often chooses to buy processed foods because they are cheaper. Chips, Ramen, and white flour are much cheaper than whole grain flour, which is more nutritious.
Families faced with an inability to grow food or inadequate income to purchase food will likely opt for the cheapest cost per calorie from the available choices. For example, when money is tight it is easier to go to a fast food restaurant, just because the food is cheaper. In the face of the need for basic foods for the poor, the marketing, desirability, and availability of low-cost edible oils, empty calorie and packaged foods have encouraged poor people to consume lower-quality foods. These food changes are reflected in the emergence of obesity alongside hunger even in the same households.
Figuring out a way out to return to a healthier, and in many cases, less processed diet with more nutrient dense, healthier foods is critical. To prevent future problems and to provide for those with nutrition-related diseases, be they obesity, diabetes, a cancer or others, we must find ways to improve the dietary patterns of the globe. Focusing on medical treatment and reduction of other cardio problems and all the related economic, health, and other consequences facing low- and middle-income countries. Some scholars propose that the most effective action requires evidence-based carefully evaluated programs and policies.
In countries such as China, Mexico, Chile, and Brazil, great strides have been made to minimize malnutrition through programs targeting vulnerable communities, hunger and malnutrition have been reduced. An example is Oportunidades in Mexico, the cash transfer program that provides a stipend and complementary food for preschoolers. These countries recognize that the programs must be tailored to address malnutrition while not accelerating energy imbalance and obesity among the recipients, as has occurred in some programs. The Mexican government found a need to reduce the fat content of the milk along with other changes in its feeding programs to address problems of child obesity.
The success found in the program of Oportunidades offers a hope that there are countries who have found viable solutions to this enormous paradox. This program could be considered a model for other countries to replicate for their own citizens. But, just because Oportunidades was successful in Mexico does not mean it is the final solution for a multi-faceted and complex issue. With the world food crisis being particularly “globalized” issue, it will be one of the greatest challenges of the twenty-first century, then, to find a way of producing a more equitable global food system, one in which the obese will lose some of their weight while the starving will gain some.