Columnist: Global Obesity Advance: A Peril Governments Can't Ignore

April 22, 2013

By Neal Peirce

Legal limbo -- that's where New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ban on sales of extra-large soda drinks remains, shelved by a judge's order. And state legislators in Mississippi believe they've scored political points with a law barring local governments from restricting the size of soft drinks (no matter that Mississippi is already America's most overweight state).

Nonetheless, high-calorie foods and their twin peril in high-fat food are not issues that are likely to just fade away. Evidence is fast mounting that such foods generate not just obesity but significantly higher rates of diabetes and other illnesses.

Looking forward, the impact of unhealthy foods is likely to ricochet alarmingly, escalating local public health and pension costs, making military and police forces less fit, and most alarming of all, imposing huge added fiscal burdens on such programs as Medicaid and Medicare.

And not just in the United States. The problem is now global and getting worse rapidly. This was the message that Barry Popkin, professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina and author of "The World Is Fat," brought to a recent University of Pennsylvania "Feeding Cities" conference at the school's Institute for Urban Research.

Around the globe, Popkin reported, more than 2 billion people are now overweight -- the result of 30-plus years of "major shifts in how we eat and drink." Building on humans' natural inclination to like sweets, sugary beverage intake is "spiraling around the world." Fatty foods consumption has risen sharply -- with a rising share of people's caloric intake from fried foods.

Part of the problem is clearly the human body. We're now able to labor less physically than in earlier times, with television watching and computer use leading to increasingly sedentary lifestyles. And in parts of the world where hunger was a grim recent visitor and still lingers in pockets of Africa and South Asia, obesity is actually seen as a sign of prosperity.

But there's more than personal tastes and lifestyles leading to increasing body weights across the continents. Food corporations such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kraft, Nestle, Frito-Lay and their international counterparts aggressively market their processed food products even in remote village areas.

One result is the habit of between-meals snacking, a phenomenon rare in earlier times. Popkin describes this as "a norm created by the food industry" to expand sales. Its net result is again adding to caloric intake, and more obesity.

Increasingly higher towers of sugar cubes illustrate the amount of the sweetener used in escalating the scales -- 12 to 16 to 24 to 44 ounces and beyond. (Gee, when I was a kid, Cokes weighed 6 ounces!)

Another alarming development: rapidly expanding consumption of deep-fried foods. Again, it's hardly accidental -- the path to it was the big expansion of cheaper grains used to feed livestock, which in turn enabled cheaper animal food for consumers. Low-cost grains/less expensive meats lead to high fat levels in diets. No arguing, it's clearly a "Made in the U.S.A." formula.

Compounding the dangers, companies are deliberately concocting what author Michael Moss describes as "crave-able" foods with a high "bliss point" of sugar and fat. Examples include lacing normally nutritious foods such as yogurt and spaghetti sauce with high amounts of sugar and sodium, he reports in a new book, "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us."

And there's yet another perverse effect -- body mass index (BMI) and its race and ethnic variations in actual body fat -- that presents health perils for every condition from hypertension to diabetes to some forms of cancer. At identical BMIs of 22.3, for example, Popkin reports a typical Caucasian male might have 9.1 percent body fat, while a person of Asian, Latin American or African descent could have 21.2 percent.

Bottom line: major food producers, most U.S. or Northern Hemisphere-based, pushing unhealthy food products into Southern Hemisphere markets populated by ethnic groups with dramatically higher genetic susceptibility.

Yet when any government on any continent tries to limit or draw attention to levels of sugars or fats in food, the food industry pounces with its full weight of public relations and legal action to stop restrictions. Victories are rare, though with exceptions: Chile, for example, now requires an "X" warning on packages of junk food.

Another route is smart agricultural policy. Today U.S. farm policy clearly favors farmers growing crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans -- products variously used for processed food and animal feed and (in the case of corn) fuel. At the same time, federal policy does little to encourage production of fruits and vegetables -- the very foods needed for healthier lifestyles.

The health of America calls for a dramatic reversal. Indeed, ditto the world.

Neal Peirce's email address is nrp@citistates.com.

(c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities.