Among all the many big crises that take up newspaper and television space – civil war in Ukraine, the expansion of ISIS in Iraq, poverty and hunger in sub-Saharan Africa, and so on – it is easy to lose sight of another crisis that we see everyday. One which in many ways seems intensely personal rather than societal, but which actually has a big effect on us all – the crisis of obesity.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the country with the most obese people is the USA. This seems to make perfect sense – the country with the most money and the most access to affordable food is likely to have the most overweight people, right? But after that, the list becomes less expected, with China, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia all in the top ten. Even more surprising, the highest obesity rates in the world (in per capita percentage terms, not overall numbers) can be found in the fairly poor Pacific islands – in Nauru, Micronesia, Tonga, and the Cook Islands more than 90% of all people are at least somewhat overweight.
This isn’t just bad for the health of individuals, but also for countries as a whole. More obese people means more health spending is needed to fix problems like heart disease and clogged arteries. Even in a country like Canada, with a relatively small population and levels of obesity, health problems related to weight are estimated to have cost the economy up to $7bn a year. In the US it has been estimated at $190bn – a mind-boggling number that is being taken away from societal goods like education and environmental protection.
Obesity, then, is a problem for us all, and it seems to affect people from around the world and of all social classes – but why? It never used to be such a big problem, so have humans simply got lazier, or is it somehow related to our broken food system?
That food system is now reliant on producing cheap junk food to feed people quickly and at a low cost and a high profit. This is why we see such an emphasis on corn, sugar, and oils. These things are cheap to produce, tasty, and even somewhat physically addictive to our bodies – but they contain very little in the way of useful nutrients. Instead, they mess with our blood sugar levels and give us high doses of easy calories that we do not do enough to burn off. Why do we continue producing these foods in such great quantities if we know what bad things they do for us? Because they are profitable – it’s much cheaper to keep making and selling junk food than to emphasize healthy eating and nutrient-dense food.
The cheapness of such obesity-promoting foods also means that being overweight is often linked to being poor – this seems counter-intuitive, as we assume that poor people have less money for food. But that’s the whole point – if you have less money, you end up buying cheap and convenient foods rather than healthy options that are often more expensive. Poorer people are also more likely to be working long hours to make ends meet, and the convenience of junk food can be very attractive when they get home at night. Of course, the end result of all this is that they become fat, they become ill, and – particularly in places like the US where healthcare is not free – they go into debt trying to repair themselves. They consequently stay poor, as do their children, and the vicious cycle continues.
We have already written many articles about the problems with our food system – its dependence on chemicals and industrial techniques in particular. But as well as these environmental issues, we must also recognize how toxic it is to individual bodies due to the consumption patterns it encourages. It’s not just junk food that is toxic – it’s the whole food system and its endless search for profit, and we need to do something about it before it is too late.
Article prepared by John Wish