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Global hunger isn’t the worst food-related threat to humanity

There are more obese people in the world than hungry ones – which may sound like a good thing, but it really isn’t

World Obesity Day was marked this week and, with over a billion people afflicted worldwide, obesity is now considered more dangerous to global health than hunger. The numbers are staggering.

Sometime in the mid-20th century a cameraman captured an unforgettable black-and-white photo depicting thousands of American sunworshippers crowded onto Coney Island, New York City. What is most conspicuous about the iconic photograph, aside from the sheer number of beachgoers, is the lack of excessive cellulite packed into the assorted bathing suits and bikinis. Sadly and not a little tragically, those halcyon days are over.

While hunger overwhelmingly afflicts the poverty-stricken nations of the world, obesity represents a unique type of affliction in that it targets both rich and poor alike. Between 1990 and 2022, global obesity rates quadrupled for children and doubled for adults, according to a new study by the Lancet (The World Health Organization classifies obesity as having a body-mass index equal to or greater than 30 kilograms per square meter).

In the WHO’s top-ten ‘hefty’ list, it may come as some surprise that the tiny Polynesian nations of Tonga and American Samoa had the highest prevalence of obesity in 2022 for women, while American Samoa and [nearby] Nauru had the highest rates among men. In those picturesque island paradises, more than 60% of the adult population were clinically obese. Other surprises included Egypt, weighing in at number ten in the female category, while Qatar took tenth place in boys’ obesity levels.

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Among the wealthy countries, the United States was the heavyweight representative and is tenth in the world for obesity among men. Shockingly, the US adult obesity rate increased from 21.2% in 1990 to 43.8% in 2022 for women, and from 16.9% to 41.6% in 2022 for men, placing the nation of 330 million fast-food consumers 36th in the world for highest obesity rates among women and, for men, tenth in the world. By contrast, the adult obesity rate in the United Kingdom increased from 13.8% in 1990 to 28.3% in 2022 among females, ranking it 87th highest in the world, while the obesity rate for males surged from 10.7% to 26.9%, placing Britain at 55th.

Among children, the study found the US obesity rates increased from 11.6% in 1990 to 19.4% in 2022 for girls, 11.5% to 21.7% for boys. In 2022, the US ranked 22nd in the world for obesity among girls, 26th for boys.

Considering the rapid rates of change among Americans, the US will be predictably dominating the charts in just a few years, creating what could be considered a national emergency.

None of this should have been unpredictable. After all, what does a society expect that can’t even park the car and walk several steps into the restaurant? And it’s not like consumers are ordering homemade soup and salads at the drive-thru window. The junk food served at fast food enterprises is loaded with sodium content in order to prolong its shelf life, as well as saturated fatty acids that increase cholesterol levels in the body, clog the blood vessels and restrict normal blood flow, leading to heart disease. And that’s not even mentioning the high-fructose corn syrup found in the cola drinks.

The real challenge, however, is how to combat obesity at a time when so many people have become addicted to a sedentary, order-online lifestyle. It probably comes as no surprise that the same people who demand their food fast and fried, will also expect an easy cure as well.

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Americans anxious about having to purchase a new wardrobe have taken to various diet pills, like Ozempic, a diabetes drug that is being used off-label as an appetite suppressant, and which got a shout out by none other than Elon Musk. The investment bank Morgan Stanley was panicked enough by the potential dent in junk-food profits that it released a white paper detailing how the diet pills could make Americans’ consumption of snack foods around 3% lower.

But do the American people really need another drug to combat the battle of the bulge, or is there a better, more natural way forward?

Back in 2022, the World Health Organization adopted an obesity response plan that includes a number of lifestyle changes, including the promotion of breastfeeding, restrictions on marketing unhealthy food and drinks to children, nutrition labelling, and physical activity standards for schools.

Now, if the WHO can just get Big Business behind the initiative, it just might make an impact.


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