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Global Obesity Advance: A Peril Governments Can’t Ignore

Neal Peirce / Apr 19 2013

For Release Sunday, April 21, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceLegal limbo – that’s where New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on sales of extra-large soda drinks remains, shelved by a judge’s order. And state legislators in Mississippi believe they’ve scored political points with a law barring local governments from restricting the size of soft drinks. No matter that Mississippi is already America’s most overweight state.

Nonetheless, high calorie foods and their twin peril in high fat food are not issues likely to just fade away. Evidence is fast growing that such foods generate not just obesity but significantly higher rates of diabetes and other illnesses.

Looking forward, the impact of unhealthy foods is likely to ricochet alarmingly, escalating local public health and pension costs, making military and police forces less fit and, most alarming of all, adding huge fiscal burdens on such programs as Medicaid and Medicare.

And this is not just in the United States. The problem is now global and rapidly worsening. That was the message that Barry Popkin, professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of the The World Is Fat, brought to a recent University of Pennsylvania “Feeding Cities” conference at the school’s Institute for Urban Research.

Across the globe, Popkin reported, more than 2 billion people are now overweight – the result of 30-plus years of “major shifts in how we eat and drink.” Building on humans’ natural inclination to like sweets, sugary beverage intake is “spiraling around the world.” Fatty foods consumption has risen sharply, with a rising share of peoples’ calorie intake coming from fried foods.

Part of the problem is clearly the human body. We’re now able to labor less physically than in earlier times, with television watching and computer use leading to increasingly sedentary lifestyles. In parts of the world where hunger was a grim recent visitor and lingers in pockets, as in Africa and South Asia, obesity is actually seen as a sign of prosperity.

But more than personal tastes and lifestyles are leading to increasing body weights across the continents. Food corporations such as such Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Kraft, Nestle, Frito-lay and their international counterparts aggressively market processed food products even in remote village areas.

One result is the habit of between-meal snacking, a phenomenon rare in earlier times. Popkin describes this as “a norm created by the food industry” to expand sales of its products. Its net result adds to caloric intake, and more obesity. Increasingly higher towers of sugar cubes illustrate the amount of the sweetener used in escalating up the scales: 12 to 16 to 24 to 44 ounces and beyond. (Gee, when I was a kid, Cokes weighed 6 ounces!)

Another alarming development: rapidly expanding consumption of deep fried foods. Again, it’s hardly accidental – the path to it was big expansion of cheaper grains used to feed livestock which, in turn, enabled cheaper animal food to offer consumers. The combination of low-cost grains and less costly meats leads to high fat levels in diets. It’s clearly a “Made in the U.S.A.” formula.

Compounding the dangers, companies are deliberately concocting what author Michael Moss describes as “crave-able” foods with a high “bliss point” of sugar and fat. Examples include lacing normally nutritious foods such as yogurt and spaghetti sauce with high amounts of sugar and sodium, Moss reports in a new book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.

And there’s yet another perverse effect – the relationship of body mass index (BMI) to actual body fat can vary by race and ethnicity, presenting health perils for conditions from hypertension to diabetes to some forms of cancer. For example, at identical BMIs of 22.3, Popkin reports, a typical Caucasian male might have 9.1 percent body fat while someone of Asian, Latin American or African descent could have 21.2 percent.

The bottom line: major food producers, most of them U.S. and northern hemisphere-based, pushing unhealthy food products into southern hemisphere markets populated by ethnic groups with dramatically higher genetic susceptibility.

Yet when any government on any continent tries to limit or draw attention to levels of sugars or fats in food, the food industry pounces with its full weight of public relations and legal action to stop restrictions. Victories are rare, though with exceptions: Chile, for example, now requires a “X” warning on packages of junk food.

Another route is smart agricultural policy. Today U.S. farm policy clearly favors farmers growing crops like corn, wheat and soybeans – products variously used for processed food and animal feed and (in the case of corn) fuel. At the same time, federal policy does little to encourage production of fruits and vegetables, the very foods needed for healthier lifestyles.

The health of America calls for a dramatic reversal. Indeed, ditto the world.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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  1. Posted April 20, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Soft drink sizes limits unfortunately conflate good eating with Big Government, so one is left dragging around a lot of political baggage. Bloomberg is right, but he is rolling the snowball uphill.

    The whole agribusiness-junk food complex is trying to increase its market share by hooking us on junk food. We stopped buying most commercial marinara, for example, after reading the ingredients. I can easily duplicate the commercial stuff at home by making a healthy sauce and then dumping in the salt shaker and sugar bowl. To me, such food tastes awful.

    Add to that our sedentary lifestyles and car-based culture (all marketed overseas now) and you have a perfect storm. Add Obamacare and we get to pay twice, once at the Junque Foode Counter and once with our taxes that support public health efforts that treat the symptoms while we are helpless to combat the disease.

    I would say the shortcut to eliminating this double/triple whammy is better education, but that doesn’t seem to be an option these days, even in the USA. I’m sadly pessimistic, Neal.

  2. Stanley Rapoport
    Posted April 20, 2013 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    Dear Neal,
    While it may be difficult to change eating habits by suggesting what one should not eat, especially in view of pressure from the nutrition and fast food industries, another approach would be to recommend a dietary regimen that can be followed and has been shown beneficial. A recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine (Estruch et al., Vol 368, pp. 1279-1290, 2013) indicates that eating a “Mediterranean diet” supplemented by extra virgin olive oil or 30 g mixed nuts, in which intake of soda drinks, commercial bakery foods, spread fats and red or processed meats is limited, can reduce incidence of stroke and heart attacks by 30% compared with a “normal” diet. As you note, the inclusion of soy oil in processed foods has increased dramatically over the past decades. Soy oil contains a high concentration of the omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid, linoleic acid, which preclinical studies suggest can be deleterious to health by various mechanisms.

  3. Posted April 20, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    The advantages of a Med diet are pretty well known. I think changing people’s dietary habits is a tough sell unless they are literate enough to read the stuff and take it seriously. Plus, one has to have time to cook.

  4. Neal Peirce
    Posted April 21, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Comment received from Patty Anderson in Texas:
    I very much enjoyed your column today. I would add an observation about portion size and genetic engineering, even when it comes to something we think of as healthy– fruit. The graft on my peach tree didn’t take, so the peaches are the size they were meant to be, about the size of apricots today. They are also less sweet than the softball-sized peaches in the stores today. Corn is sweeter, grapefruit is sweeter, etc. , due to manipulation in an attempt, largely successful, to convince Americans that bigger and sweeter is better, so that the old standards of portion size don’t work anymore. An apple was a good snack, and probably still is, but it might have 10-20% more calories than an apple 30 years ago did. We also have no clue what this genetic engineering is doing to the rest of the environment– how does it affect insects, birds, deer, squirrels, etc., that also eat these fruits?

    I would love to see some research about this issue.
    Thank you.
    Patty Anderson