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Hunger v. Obesity: Which Problem is Bigger?

In 2010, the Global Burden of Disease published a study that pointed to obesity as a more widespread health problem than world hunger. The study stated that about 30 percent of the global population was overweight or obese and that the latter caused approximately 5 percent of all deaths.

The problem of transitioning from widespread hunger to widespread obesity tends to occur in island countries termed ‘banana republics’, or those known for their direct economical dependence on trade relations with developed nations. Said dependence leads to a massive overconsumption of processed foods imported from the West and soaring rates of obesity.

A poster child for this phenomenon is Nauru: a Pacific island whose people were starving until a U.K. company discovered the country’s potential for phosphate mining. What followed the invariable economic boom was a precipitous rise in average weights as fast food largely replaced the Nauruans’ fresh fish and tropical fruits. Today, approximately 94 percent of Nauru’s population is overweight.

Unfortunately, banning fast foods will not solve the problem. Companies such as Dunkin Donuts and McDonalds have such tremendous political and economic clout that illegalizing their products would mean eliminating thousands of (barely) paid jobs and “food” products that nonetheless quell starvation.

Powerful as they are though, their products make it possible for a person to be obese and undernourished simultaneously. No impoverished individual is going to look at the nutritional labels on food, however deceptive they may be, if she is holding her first meal in a week.

The saddest part is that so-called banana republics cannot afford to buy their own food. Between the menaces of deforestation, immoral trading practices, and perpetuated poverty, their people are increasingly dependent upon foreign aid for unhealthy imports and foodstuffs each year.

If the current rate holds, nearly half of the world’s adult population will weigh in above a healthy range by 2030. The number will rise most prominently in industrialized regions compared to rural; already that trend has taken ahold of India and China.

What lies at the heart of the epidemic is widespread addiction to a substance of which large swaths of peoples’ ancestors were once deprived. It takes several generations, if ever, for their descendants’ brains to catch up to the sudden abundance. Until then, they subconsciously perceive the unhealthy food as a rare, invaluable delicacy and gorge down as much of it as possible.

Education is not enough to stop the obesity epidemic because emotion will always trump logic. The first step to solving the problem does not lie with educators or the educated; it lies with policy-makers.

It is policy-makers who are capable of manipulating the market such that island nations’ exports fetch a higher price on the market so that their people do not have to resort exclusively to fast food. If they have no other feasible options given their budgets, education would be completely useless.

Because people choose which foods to consume based on emotion, educators need to employ compassion. Psychology studies have shown that people are less likely to make unhealthy food choices when their self-esteem is intact. Eating is a social activity, so it is important to also share meals with supportive individuals. Lastly, healthier foods also tend to have more natural ingredients. If there are three or more unpronounceable, unrecognizable ingredients on the nutrition label, don’t buy that product.

– Leah Zazofsky

Sources: ASAHI, Flagler Live, Psychology Today
Photo: Challenged Kids International