"Big food" root cause of obesity and malnutrition worldwide

A new report speaks about the influence of food on worldwide obesity and malnutrition epidemic says a new report. The report states that “big food” needs to be stopped around the world in order to deal with malnutrition on one hand and obesity on the other. There is also a problem of climate change and effects on natural resources, says the report.

Image Credit: Trong Nguyen / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Trong Nguyen / Shutterstock

The commission of experts were put together by the Lancet medical journal. They highlighted the three major issues faced by the world population today. One of them is obesity and increased consumption of junk food and high calorie food combined with lack of physical activity. Another extreme is unavailability of adequate food leading to severe malnutrition and nutrition related problems. A third emerging issue is the problem of climate change linked with food production to feed the world population, waste disposal and transportation of food.  The Lancet Commission on Obesity was prepared by 43 academics belonging to 14 different countries. The commission says that politicians, when it comes to food choices and diet of the populations have been suffering from “decades of inertia”.

According to the expert group it is time that both the political forces as well as the civil society hold up against the food industry that caters to only its own commercial interests. They have called for a UN treaty similar to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) that could help develop healthy as well as sustainable food policies. This could ban food and beverage companies from discussions and faulty advertising much like FCTC has done with tobacco.

The team wants that subsidies that are provided for food and agriculture transport that cater to poor diet choices need to be lifted. The civil society organizations could soon receive up to a $1bn (£760m) to campaign against food industries for reducing sugar content, imposing sugar taxes and counter strategies that promote unhealthy diet according to the panel’s recommendations. The team of experts spoke about the research from Mexican NGO El Poder Del Consumidor. He and his team, backed by the Bloomberg Philanthropies worked towards taxes on soft drinks successfully.

Tim Lobstein from the World Obesity Federation was one of the members of the commission. He said that there is enormous power and financial strength of the food and beverage industry. This power is often exerted onto governments. He added that at present in the US Congress there are 294 lobbyists from the food and beverage industry and this is much more than lobbyists from tobacco and alcohol industries. He said, “Of that, two-thirds are former Congress staff, so they know what they are doing. That level of lobbying is devoted to preserving the status quo. It is a major barrier to change and must be challenged.”

According to the commission, the food industry pressure has successfully removed sustainability from national dietary guidelines. They mention that cycling, walking and using the public transport is low in the US because of the subsidies on fossil fuels that keep the petrol prices low and encourage private car use. This not only is bad for the environment but also reduces physical activity.

Prof Boyd Swinburn of the University of Auckland, the co-chair of the commission was firm when he said in a statement, “Until now, undernutrition and obesity have been seen as polar opposites of either too few or too many calories. In reality, they are both driven by the same unhealthy, inequitable food systems, underpinned by the same political economy that is single-focused on economic growth and ignores the negative health and equity outcomes. Climate change has the same story of profits and power ignoring the environmental damage caused by current food systems, transportation, urban design and land use.”

Professor William Dietz of George Washington University in the US, a report author in a statement said, “In 50 years, if we are not able to reduce this, we will have this incredible scourge of both obesity and undernutrition and the planet will be burning.” He explained, “Although food clearly differs from tobacco because it is a necessity to support human life, unhealthy food and beverages are not. The similarities with Big Tobacco lie in the damage they induce and the behaviours of the corporations that profit from them.”

Professor Corinna Hawkes of City University in London, another member of the commission said that the commission was “not trying to put the food industry out of business.” She said, “People are just encouraged to eat too much and this means there is over-consumption in some areas and under-consumption in others.”

Lobstein said poor eating choices are also associated with use of processed foods that come in plastic covers. He said that according to a survey by Ocean Conservancy seventy percent of the plastic waste in the seas comes from the food and beverage industry. “All these things are interrelated,” he said adding, “There are compounds in plastics that are endocrine disruptors, which may be contributing to obesity. If plastics in the food chain are causing weight gain, we will need win-win solutions to improve the food supply while saving the planet.”

The commission in the 61 page report advocated consumption of less red meat similar to an earlier recommendation “planetary health diet” by the Lancet and Eat Forum NGO recently.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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