Monday, July 13, 2009

The World Is Fat by Barry Popkin

A half-century ago there were fewer than 100 million obese individuals and 7 billion malnourished people. There are now 1.6 billion overweight and obese people in the world, many living with the chronic diseases that contribute to the bulk of deaths worldwide, while there are 800 million undernourished people. The increase in obesity has been more rapid than the decrease in under-nutrition- particularly in the past two decades.

The relatively recent addition of caloric beverages to people's diets plays an important role in the development of this pandemic; physiologically, a calorie of sugar in a beverage is not treated in the same way as a calorie of food but rather is ignored by the digestive system- by passing signals of satiety- so that when we drink sugared beverages, we're simply adding excess calories.

Sodas and fruits drinks are serious culprits in this affair but it is also true that today, the average American adult consumes over 100 calories a day from alcohol... total alcohol intake, mostly from wine and beer, increased four-fold in the U.S. between 1965 and 2002. New England has the highest alcohol intake rates of all the geographic regions of the United States.

The shift to calorically sweetened beverages, larger portion sizes, more eating occasions, and the increased availability of sweeter and fattier foods- which are the result of technological and economic changes -are causing the obesity epidemic. More than half of the money Americans spend on food today is for meals consumed away from home. That doesn't count how much we spend on food prepared at grocery stores that we take home to eat. Even in restaurants and homemakers in China, Taiwan and South Korea have learned to mimic some elements of how fast-food chains process food, including large drinks and food portions

As the result of agricultural subsidies ....we have had much cheaper beef, poultry, corn, soybeans and sugar...this has occurred at the expense of healthy plant foods- particularly fruits and vegetables, whose relative cost is great compared with fats, sugars and meats in today's marketplace. The results for all of us- not only in America but around the globe- have been devastating.

Continued, regular, and incremental caloric burn- from dish washing, doing laundry (the old-fashioned way), preparing food or shopping was significant in times past. The same went for all standing, lifting and movement in our jobs.We used to walk up more stairs, amble about our neighborhoods, with progress our movement has changed for the worse. Many people are not able to establish the long-term habits of moderate exercise that would help avoid obesity and maintain health in this environment.

Advertising, packaging and distributing- rather than the ingredients themselves- make up most of the cost of food. The cost of the ingredients often makes up only 5 to 10 percent of a processed food's retail price. For soft drinks, the ingredients cost pennies. The mark-up is thus enormous; food producing and processing is a hugely profitable and powerful enterprise.

Some Big Sugar and Big Beverage companies -seeing the writing on the wall- are working in a stealth fashion to cut calories and added sugar in their products but, for the most part, trade associations like International Life Science Institute remain hostile to the findings of nutrition researchers like the author of this book. The Institute of Medicine is the only advisory body that is usually outside food politics.

The World Is Fat; The Fads, Trends, Policies and Products That Are Fattening The Human Race by Barry Popkin, prof of Global Nutrition at UNC, Chapel Hill, Avery Press, 2009.

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