- The equator is not the only place where the earth is
bulging these days. In the United States, 55 percent of adults are overweight
by international standards, and a whopping 23 percent are considered obese.
But this is not just an American problem; even in developing nations, overeating
is occurring side-by-side with persistent widespread hunger.
- While the world,s underfed population has declined slightly
since 1980 to 1.1 billion, the number of overweight people has surged to
- For example, 41 percent of Colombia,s adult population
is overweight; in Brazil, 36 percent of adults weigh too much. For the
first time in human history, the number of overweight people rivals the
number of underweight people. While the world,s underfed population has
declined slightly since 1980 to 1.1 billion, the number of overweight people
has surged to 1.1 billion.
- THE BURDEN OF DISEASE
- Both the overweight and the underweight suffer from malnutrition,
which physicians define as a deficiency or an excess in a person,s intake
of nutrients and other dietary elements needed for healthy living. Both
groups share high levels of sickness and disability, shortened life expectancies,
and lower levels of productivity " all of which are a drag on a country,s
development. More than half of the world,s disease burden " measured
in "years of healthy life lost " is attributable to hunger, overeating,
and widespread vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
- The specific consequences of hunger and being overweight
can be very different. Hunger hits children the hardest, increasing their
vulnerability to infectious diseases or conditions such as diarrhea, which
often lead to permanent mental and physical impairment or even death. Excess
weight gain, on the other hand, takes its greatest toll in adulthood, leading
to chronic, but reversible, conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
- PAYING THE PRICE
- Both developed and developing nations are paying a high
price for malnutrition. The World Bank estimates that hunger cost India
from 3 percent to 9 percent of its GDP in 1996, greater than its budgets
for nutrition, health, and education combined. And obesity cost the United
States 12 percent of the national health care budget in the late 1990s,
$118 billion, more than double the $47 billion attributable to smoking.
- As western diets and lifestyles spread to Africa, Asia,
and Latin America, nations are often simply trading hunger for obesity,
and diseases of poverty for diseases of excess. Still struggling to eradicate
infectious diseases, many developing nations, health care systems could
be crippled by growing caseloads of chronic illness.
- Most countries simply do not make nutritional well-being
a priority. It is a myth that hunger results from a scarcity of food. Some
80 percent of the world,s hungry children live in countries with food surpluses.
The common threads that run through nearly all hunger, in rich and poor
nations alike, is poverty.
- EDUCATION HELPS
- Malnutrition hits children hardest, while obesity takes
its greatest toll in adulthood.
- Even countries struggling with difficult economic and
political circumstances can significantly reduce the number of underweight
people with the right policies. Cuba and the Indian state of Kerala, for
example, have been remarkably successful at reducing malnutrition by targeting
nutritionally vulnerable populations such as women and children for special
attention. Both governments provide broad access to health care, an important
partner to food intake in ensuring good nutrition.
- In nations where overeating is a problem, policymakers
need a different set of tools. All too often, techno-fixes like liposuction
or olestra attract more attention than the behavioral patterns like poor
eating habits and sedentary lifestyles that underlie obesity. Liposuction
is now the leading form of cosmetic surgery in the United States, for example,
at 400,000 operations per year. While billions are spent on gimmicky diets
and food advertising, far too little money is spent on nutrition education.
- IS THERE A SOLUTION?
- Why not levy taxes on unhealthy food, and make fruits
and vegetable tax-free?
- One obvious place to start is the school environment.
U.S. school districts have been cutting back on physical education while
at the same time negotiating lucrative cafeteria contracts with fast-food
vendors and soda companies. By contrast, the Trim and Fit Scheme in Singapore
has reduced obesity among children by 33 to 50 percent, depending on the
age group, through changes in school catering and increased nutrition and
physical education for teachers and children.
- In the absence of a strong government educational effort
on nutrition issues " in schools, on product labels, and through the
regulation of food advertising " most people get their nutrition cues
from food companies. In the modern food environment of unprecedented access
to unhealthy foods that are low in cost, heavily promoted, and good tasting,
we,re like children in a candy shop, every day of our lives.
- A serious effort to end overeating could be modeled on
the successful campaign to discourage smoking, including the use of "high
fat or "high sodium warning labels and taxes to deter purchases. Consumption
of nutrient-poor foods could be further reduced using a tax on food based
on the nutrient value per calorie. Fatty and sugary foods low in nutrients
and high in calories would be taxed the most, while fruits and vegetables
might escape taxation entirely.
- In an age of unprecedented global prosperity, it is wholly
unnecessary that malnutrition should exist on such a massive scale. Poorly
nourished people are a sign of progress gone awry: prosperity has either
bypassed them and left them hungry, or saturated them to the point of overindulgence.
- Gary Gardner is a senior researcher and Brian Halweil
a staff researcher at <http://www.worldwatch.orgThe Worldwatch Institute,
a Washington, DC-based research organization. They are the authors of "Underfed
and Overfed: The Global Epidemic of Malnutrition.
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