55% Of Americans
Overweight - 23% Are Obese
By Gary Gardner and Brian Halweil
Special To MSNBC
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 1.1 billion.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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