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How America Is Making the Whole World Fat and Unhealthy

We've exported the worst of our food to developing countries and we've imported the best of their food -- making poorer countries even more worse off.

Photo Credit: Jill Richardson


It is hardly news that the United States faces epidemic health problems linked to poor diets. Nearly two out of every five Americans are obese. But according to a press release from the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, "The West is now exporting diabetes and heart disease to developing countries, along with the processed foods that line the shelves of global supermarkets. By 2030, more than 5 million people will die each year before the age of 60 from non-communicable diseases linked to diets."

De Schutter, whose work usually focuses on ending hunger, just published a new report saying, "The right to food cannot be reduced to a right not to starve. It is an inclusive right to an adequate diet providing all the nutritional elements an individual requires to live a healthy and active life, and the means to access them." In other words, the right to a healthful diet must be included in the human right to food. And, as the unhealthy diets already common in the United States spread to poorer nations, so do the health problems associated with those diets. However, unlike wealthy nations, poorer nations are not equipped to deal with the health consequences via medicine, making preventable diet-related health problems more deadly.

While the poor around the world face hunger, for those who have enough to eat in non-industrialized nations, traditional diets are quite healthy. In Kenya, for example, peasant farmers subsist on a stiff corn porridge called ugali eaten with a variety of green vegetables, beans, and perhaps some pumpkin. Peasants in Bolivia may dine on potatoes, quinoa and other grains, corn, sweet potato, and other Andean roots and tubers. Mexicans combine corn tortillas and beans to provide complete protein. A Filipino family may eat pinakbet, a stew of local vegetables flavored with bagoong, a Filipino fish sauce.

In each and every case, traditional diets are made up of whole foods, including grains, beans, vegetables, fresh fruit, and perhaps some animal products. Wild plants that an American might dispose of as "weeds" are used to provide essential micronutrients, feed families during hard times, or serve as medicines. Often fermentation is used to preserve foods and increase their nutrition, as in the case of Kenya's fermented porridge uji. Livestock enjoy diverse and natural diets, and meat is reserved for special occasions -- perhaps a chicken to celebrate the arrival of a guest, a goat for Christmas, or a cow for a wedding.

But times are changing. Visit even the most far-flung rural part of each of these nations today, and you'll find Coca-Cola advertising -- and Coca-Cola -- everywhere. Restaurants and stores in Africa display Coca-Cola-themed store signs while their menus are posted on Coca-Cola chalkboards and waiters wear red Cola-Cola aprons. In South America, you can buy a bottle of Coke out of your car window from a vendor dressed in red Coca-Cola-themed gear while you wait in traffic. If there's anywhere on earth you cannot easily buy an ice-cold Coke, it's Antarctica -- although it's very possible there are already shops selling ice-cold Coke there, too. And while other junk foods sold in each of these places may not be such recognizable global brands, they are equally detrimental to human health no matter which company makes them or how they are branded.

In his report, De Schutter gives Mexico as a particular example. Mexico, only second to the United States in the percent of its population that is now obese, once had a national diet that dietitians considered nearly perfect. In the 1967 book Campaigns Against Hunger, scientists E.C. Stakman, Richard Bradfield, and Paul C. Mangelsdorf write, "It appears that the Mexican Indians, living on the land and eating their corn, beans, and chili peppers supplemented at times by tomatoes, by the seeds and flesh of squashes, and by wild plants and weeds, may have had not just an adequate diet but a near-perfect one."

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