From famine to obesity: our new malnutrition

Por: MA. Clara Franco Yáñez
Master en Asuntos Internacionales, por el Instituto de Posgrados en Estudios Internacionales y del Desarrollo en Ginebra, Suiza

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Mexico is now in constant dispute with the USA over the questionable title of the most obese nation on Earth. When it comes to childhood obesity, we are already the established champions; to the sad detriment of those children’s present and future health. How is this happening? Why?... Seen from a bio-historical perspective, as a species we are now the victims of our own success. Thousands of years ago, before the advent of agriculture, calories and nutrients were hard to come by and we spent most of our energy and time as a species looking for food through foraging and hunting. Agriculture brought something new: the astonishing breakthrough of actually controlling the lives of other species for our own nutrition. Cereals especially (wheat, corn, etc.) were easy to grow, and yielded hundreds of calories per plant. Of course, there were still wars, periods of unfavorable weather, accidents, and many other developments which could mean food scarcity, famine and death from a sheer lack of calories – all of these can still happen in some specific regions, mostly in very underdeveloped countries. However, in Mexico my generation and the one that came before us grew up never seeing such a thing as a famine where many people would die from a true lack of sufficient calories.

Our nutritional problems nowadays look very different. Since the industrial age, our world now overproduces food to the point where we waste tons of it; we could each fill our kitchens with cans of every conceivable edible product and we still wouldn’t run out of anything. Nowadays what is killing us is not the scarcity, but the abundance: the overload of sugar and carbs making us fatter and sicker; overweight while lacking proper, good-quality nutrients. True starvation now only happens in very few countries, mostly those affected by violent conflict. The new most important non-contagious diseases, according to the World Health Organization; are the diseases of our own affluence and “misnutrition” rather than “malnutrition” (because the latter is still a word we associate to starvation rather than obesity): Type II Diabetes, heart disease, liver failure from sheer consumption of sugar. Our rates of Type II Diabetes in both adults and children in Mexico are unforgivable. Yes, part of the problem is a lack of nutritional education; which should be given in schools and all kinds of public institutions. It also doesn’t help that a lot of the conventional knowledge on nutrition we got in the past decades was plain wrong, and based on bad science; such as the demonization of healthy natural fats (we now know that it’s the consumption of sugar that really makes us much fatter than actual natural fats and oils); or the completely false “nutritional pyramid” with carbs at the base instead of the very tip, where they belong. I am not here to promote any particular type of nutritional lifestyle, first and foremost because every human body is different and needs different things to achieve its own healthy balance. Education and a more conscious nutrition are definitely part of the solution, but I doubt that they can be the entire answer. People have different opinions on government intervention and regulation; but this case clearly shows that a purely “free market” solution is not necessarily aligned with people’s best interest in regards to health. While the supposed “free market” is simply not working to make us healthier;  it does benefit countless companies that market cheap, addictive and unhealthy foods. Yes, individuals have personal freedom to make their own consumption choices, and personal responsibility is definitely part of the obesity equation, but the market strongly incentivizes consumption of very cheap junk food that damages health, and later the public pays for this through increased healthcare costs. The question is rather: how and to what extent should government intervene?... By taxing sugary products? (a measure already proven good, yet insufficient, in other countries). By doubling down on educational campaigns?... education alone is unlikely to be enough. Obesity is a complex problem and it will require a complex solution; touching upon not only education but also taxation systems, subsidies for healthier foods, and overall a healthcare system more focused on prevention than the poor damage control we have now.