By Michelle Bulterys

According to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), one in every three adults around the world is either overweight or obese. Since 1980, the number of individuals suffering from obesity has quadrupled from 250 million in 1980 to 1 billion, accounting for 14 percent of the global population. Two countries with the fastest growing economies, China and Mexico, have since doubled their obesity rates, while South Africa’s obesity rates, which have risen by a third, continue to increase exponentially. Contrary to the widespread misconception that obesity resides in the West and malnutrition reins over the developing nations, it is in fact developing countries of Eastern Asia and Southern Africa that have the highest per capita fat consumption rates in the world.

Rising per capita incomes, particularly in Mexico and Egypt provide individuals with more choice in consumption, leading to a change in lifestyle. Increasing meat, fat, sugar and oil consumption, coupled with decreasing amounts of human energy usage (for example buying water versus walking to the watering hole) has crafted the perfect recipe for weight gain. Increasing incomes and easier lifestyles is certainly an advantage to a country developing; however, much of the money is spent on the cheapest calories, all packed with high fat percentages. A family with a certain amount of money to spend on food for the day is much more likely to buy a high caloric and filling meal over an equally priced single vegetable. Inflation-adjusted prices of fruits and vegetables is soaring at a much higher rate than the reduced costs of unhealthy foods.

Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) that provide food aid to impoverished communities in developed countries aim towards combating starvation and malnutrition. Some of these NGOs have approached this goal by sending mass-produced foods that are highly preserved for packaging and transport, made of fatty and oily calories for optimum effect against malnutrition. Although these food aids have decreased the rates of malnutrition in developing nations, it has also created an ongoing dependency on food aid from abroad. Food aid has been argued to actually cause harm to public health in developing countries because of this dependency.

Developed nations’ dependency on Western nations has been present since the first European colonists arrived in Africa and Asia. Pre-colonialism suggests that nations in Africa and Asia thrived on their abundant natural resources, agricultural techniques, and successful trading markets. Colonialism forced farmers to discontinue their previous cultivations in order to provide “trade crops” which were immediately exported out of the country. When the colonists left, they took with them the knowledge of technological advances and international trade. Post-colonialism has left many countries with poor agricultural capabilities and a high reliance on U.S. and European assistance.

This is where governments need greater roles to take on stronger public health measures. The United Kingdom, South Korea and Denmark provide examples of how developed nations are fighting against obesity and unhealthy lifestyles. The UK has regulated food aid to impoverished societies to ensure the food provides individuals with a balanced diet. South Korea has developed many policies and efforts to educate women on how to cook effectively and as healthily as possible. Denmark has passed a law against all trans-fats in food products consumed. These examples illustrate how a cure to obesity in developed and developing nations lies heavily in the hands of the governments.

The United Nations for years has strongly urged governments to ban soda drinks, which are merely a sugary water recipe for obesity and diabetes. Last Year New York City became the only U.S. city to legally limit the consumption of sodas, consequentially outraging the nation for being “un-American.” The most “American” soda—Coca-Cola—has spread faster than fresh water to even the remotest corners of the world. To this day, North Korea and Cuba are the only two countries that do not import Coca-Cola due to long-term trading embargoes with the U.S, though it is believed that the soda is being smuggled in via the black markets. Many governments have placed taxes on sodas in the hopes of reducing the appeal, but only one country has legitimately proposed a permanent ban on all soda drinks. Mexico has stressed concern for its doubled obesity count and soaring diabetes prevalence, and hopes to be the first country to legally ban sodas.

A Chinese proverb states, “one chopstick is very easy to break, but many chopsticks held together are too strong to break.” If governments and their societies work together to combat obesity, we can slow the growth of obesity and ultimately eliminate its threat.

Photo by kennethkonica

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