By Erica Oakley, Humanitas Global
Malnutrition is not limited to any one ethnicity or body size and it knows no geographic or income boundaries. There isn’t a country in the world that doesn’t have some form of malnutrition within its borders. Today, there are an estimated 2-3 billion people around the world suffering from the many facets of malnutrition, which include undernutrition, overweight or obese, and/or a micronutrient deficiency (particularly iron, vitamin-A, zinc, and iodine).
With the launch of the first Global Nutrition Report (GNR) last week, the global community had its first in-depth look at national nutritional statuses since the International Conference on Nutrition in 1992. One of the things that stood out to me as I looked back at the 1992 report, Nutrition and development – a global assessment, is how eerily the report applies to the same issues we’re discussing now, over two decades later.
All of the nutritional challenges we faced then are still a reality today, including obesity. In 1992, obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) were “emerging public health problems in most countries.” Despite these warnings, as we all know, the problem has gotten worse. In developed countries, obesity and overweight are an ever increasing problem in our societies, escalating from 7-15% of adults in 1992 to 33-50% today.
With an estimated 1.5 billion people worldwide who are overweight and an additional 500 million who qualify as obese, it’s no longer an epidemic confined to developed countries - it’s a global pandemic.
Many countries face the double burden of fighting obesity and hunger. In the U.S. for example, nearly 69% of adults and 32% of children are overweight or obese. At the same time, 14.5% of U.S. households, including 15.9 million children, suffer from food insecurity. In Indonesia, the country has made great strides in cutting the number of undernourished in half, to 9%; however, the number of overweight and obese are ever increasing. 21% of Indonesian adults and 14% of children under five are obese and the numbers are growing. In Mexico, 70% of the population is overweight with 32.8% obese, while 14.4% of children are stunted (and the figure is upwards of 33% for indigenous children).
How can overweight and underweight co-exist? A few examples include:
Poor government policies and action: Many governments are slow to prioritize curbing overweight and obesity even though the impact on their economies is high. For example, the economic cost of obesity in China is expected to be 9% of gross national product by 2025. Not all governments are ignoring the problem, however. According to the GNR, some European countries are looking to tackle obesity by “improving school lunches, controlling advertising and marketing to children, taxing junk foods and overprocessed foods, and promoting physical activity.” Europeans aren’t the only ones. In Mexico, sugary drinks and unhealthy food taxes was passed in 2013. And earlier this month, Berkley passed the first soda tax in the U.S.
Lack of education: It’s not just improving the food that we feed children or the advertisements directed at them – it’s also about education. We can provide children with healthier meals, but without educating them on why the food is healthier, the message won’t get past the lunch room. With so many competing messages about what’s healthy it’s vital that the right messages get through to children – and parents. According to a recent study, mothers of a poorer socioeconomic background were more likely to feed their infants foods that were high in fat and sugar (e.g. candy, ice cream, fries, etc) because of lack of education, awareness, and expense of healthier foods (see economics below).
Food deserts: Lack of access to grocery stores combined with dependence on restaurants or convenience stores means poor access to healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Often times, these options that lower-income families have access to and can afford are high in calories but low in micronutrients.
Economics: Healthy food is expensive. According to a recent study in the UK, healthy foods were three times as more expensive than their less healthy counterparts. This is where poor government policies and action is vital. We need a complete overhaul of our food system, with one that puts people above the interest of companies. We simply can't afford not to.
We have more than 2 billion reasons – and counting – to get serious about addressing the many sides of malnutrition, including obesity. Let’s do something about it.