Posted by Cara A. George, Associate at Humanitas Global Development
The world is increasingly affected by a new form of malnutrition - obesity and overweight. Last week, while researching the nutrition and health situation in Chile for a work assignment, I was impressed by the statistics showing that the South American country has “virtually eliminated hunger” – and simultaneously horrified that the country’s obesity rate is quickly growing. In fact, a new term has been created to exemplify the growing obesity epidemic that is permeating Chilean society, and globally: Globesidad ("global" +"obesity", in Spanish).
Much has been written lately on this topic. A blog post by Jennifer Clapp on the Triple Crisis Blog points to the simultaneous existence of undernutrition and overnutrition, describing possible suggestions such as raising taxes on unhealthy foods. Similarly, this topic was addressed at an event at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research a few weeks ago, in the context of US Policies such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assitance Program (SNAP). Daniel Sumner of the University of California, Davis suggested that food programs originally designed to alleviate hunger must now address spiking obesity rates among their target populations. However, in doing so through the taxation of foods heavy in saturated fats, sugar, and salt is "nonsensical due to the difficulty of determining appropriate measures and objectives for such actions" - and the complexity of balancing two seemingly opposing objectives of ensuring proper food intake for undernourished families, yet micromanaging the food they consume.
The UN Standing Committee on Nutrition has coined the phenomenon as the "double burden" and said that obesity "constitutes a new nutritional emergency" with non-communicable diseases like diabetes and other chronic illnesses associated with obesity no longer affecting affluent, developed nations, but also countries that are emerging or transitioning in development. An article by Dr. Mark Hyman, How Malnutrition Causes Obesity, explains that calorie-dense foods do NOT equal nutrient-rich, and proper food intake has little to do with the amount of food actually consumed.
As low-income societies grow, governments will have to adapt policies to ensure that health is not compromised with the increased intake of calories. We must stress the value of increased physical activity, intake of healthful foods and improved preventative health monitoring, among other items. We should ensure that policies, education, advocacy and industry efforts are part of an integral, inter-disciplinary approach to prevent the onset of obesity and related health consequences. We must balance the scales in our response to malnutrition and tackle the double burden deliberately, proactively and strategically. We'd love to hear about programs, policies or new initiatives underway to do just that, so please share!