Whether Starving or Obese, Malnutrition Halts Global Progress

For the first time in human history there are as many overweight people in the world as underweight people. According to a new study from the World Watch Institute, a Washington, DC-based research organization, the underfed population has declined modestly since 1980 to 1.1 billion, while the overfed population has jumped to 1.1billion.With 55 percent of its adults overweight and 23 percent officially obese, the United States ranks number one in the world in overeating. While our obesity once affected mostly adults, the trend is filtering down into younger generations, with one in five children now classified as obese (a 50 percent increase in the last two decades). The numbers are rising steadily in Europe as well -- according to UN studies, more than half of the populations of Russia, Britain and Germany are overweight. Moreover, the World Watch Institute study, called "Underfed and Overfed: The Global Epidemic of Malnutrition," found that excess weight is an increasing problem in developing countries. As Brian Halweil, co-author of the report said, "Often, nations have simply traded hunger for obesity, and diseases of poverty for diseases of excess."Though the two may seem exact opposites, both hunger and obesity are the results of the same problem: Malnutrition, a deficiency or excess of the nutrients and dietary elements necessary for a healthy life. Gary Gardner, the study's other co-author, explains that "The hungry and the overweight share high levels of sickness and disability, shortened life expectancies, and lower levels of productivity." Over half of the world's disease burden can be credited to unhealthy and inadequate diets.While hunger is most dangerous to children, making them more susceptible to infectious disease, permanent physical and mental damage, and death, excess weight is most damaging to adults, leading to such conditions such diabetes and heart disease. No surprise, then, that the increase in obesity worldwide correlates with the rise in adult diabetes, which has jumped from 30 to 143 million between 1985 and 1998. Malnutrition, in the forms of both hunger and obesity, has severe economic repercussions. According to World Bank figures, hunger cost India between 3 and 9 percent of its GDP in 1996. And in the United States, obesity cost 12 percent of the national health care budget in the late 1990s -- $118 billion -- more than twice the $47 billion attributable to smoking. Approximately 300,000 Americans die each year due to obesity."In an age of unprecedented global prosperity, it is ironic -- and wholly unnecessary -- that malnutrition should exist on such a massive scale," write Gardner and Halweil. "Indeed, poorly nourished people are a sign of development gone awry: Prosperity has either bypassed them and left them hungry, or saturated them to the point of overindulgence."Both Gardner and Halweil credit the rise in overeating to shifts in society most fundamentally connected with industrialization. Humans prefer energy-dense, fatty and sugary foods. In the past these types of foods have been inaccessible to most of the world's population, but because of new agricultural technologies and international food transport, our diets are no longer limited to what is suitable to produce in the immediate climate. Additionally, junk food and fast food companies have heightened our desire for unhealthy foods with worldwide ad campaigns -- the fast food industry alone spends $30 billion per year on advertising.To back up their ads, the industry makes fast food more readily available and less expensive than truly nutritious food, making it very appealing to many consumers. "Most people get their nutrition cues from food companies," said Gardner. "In the modern food environment, we're like children in a candy shop, every day of our lives." This easy access to unhealthy foods disproportionately affects lower income people and people of color, whose communities are generally targeted by fast food companies. Obesity levels of lower income Hispanics and African Americans in the U.S. are 50 percent higher than whites.In addition to increased consumption of high-calorie, low-quality foods, most people need fewer calories than ever. Jobs which require little physical energy, educations which consist mostly of sitting and listening, traveling without exertion and lives filled with labor-saving devices have altered our need for energy. The decrease in calories needed for day-to-day living, combined with the overflow of calories in our diet, leaves us with too many calories and more weight than is healthy.In reaction to unhealthy weight gain people frequently turn to technofixes such as liposuction and olestra, rather than getting to the root of the problem by changing their eating habits and sedentary lifestyles. In America billions of dollars are spent on these superficial solutions every year, while nutrition education is largely overlooked.What can we do on a large scale to encourage good eating habits? To battle malnutrition, both India and Cuba have targeted groups such as women and children. Women, as farmers and mothers are nutritional gatekeepers in many developing countries. Their empowerment is a tool for improving nutrition. Studies of the state of Kerali, India in 1999 found that improvements in women's education, access to health care, and living environment created 75 percent reductions in malnutrition among children.Outside of the home, schools are an ideal place to improve nutritional literacy. In Berkeley, California school cafeterias are now serving organic food, and are even producing some of their own ingredients in student-tended gardens. Creative innovations like this not only get children eating better, but also foster an appreciation of good food and the process it takes to produce it.Another suggested policy approach to curb malnutrition is to model an anti-fast food campaign on the effort to discourage smoking, with labels and taxes to deter people from buying unhealthy foods. Yale psychologist Kelly Brownell has advocated a food tax based on nutrient value per calorie. Fatty and sugary foods, low in nutrients, would be taxed the most. Foods like vegetables and fruit, with low calorie to nutrient ratios, would not be taxed and might even be subsidized. Though this method may seem extreme, many believe it is time for such measures. "It may be time for a last resort. We are losing the battle", Arthur Frank, director of the Obesity Management Program at George Washington University told Shaheena Ahmad of US. News.Malnutrition has far reaching effects, not only on individuals, but on entire societies' positive and healthy progress. As Gardner said, "The hungry and the overweight share high levels of sickness and disability, shortened life expectancies, and lower levels of productivity -- each of which is a drag on a country's development."

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