In February of 2010, Michelle Obama initiated her ‘Let’s Move!’ program to help fight the epidemic of childhood obesity in the United States. This move by the First Lady only highlights the recent battle against obesity all across the world. From enlisting NFL Football Superstar Richard Sherman to encourage kids to eat healthier,
to completely reworking public education’s lunch menus, obesity is a social problem that is being put into the limelight of society. Being ‘fat’, ‘overweight’, or’obese’ is increasingly stigmatized, as the health detriments to such a lifestyle are being exposed in medical journals and in popular media. Being healthy, skinny, and fashionable are now seen as one, and for many people who are not ‘slim’, this is creating a sense of social exclusion and a lower sense of self esteem. This is being proven with more and more research. This should make us realize that approaching obesity, especially childhood obesity, should be done in a very understanding manner. For years, being overweight was already enough of a stigma, especially for children(something I can attest to, being ‘chubby’ all through elementary school). By making obesity now one of the biggest health issues of the United States, we are only making it harder on those who struggle with weight issues.
It doesn’t end there, however. Politicians, doctors, and pundits alike are linking obesity to rising health costs to society, which is ‘costing ‘ the taxpayer money. It is now estimated by the CDC that obesity is responsible for roughly 10% of all medical spending costs in the United States, a statistic that is quite startling given that only 3 in 10 adults are considered obese. Tying in with the taxpayer claim, the CDC also estimates that around 1/2 of entitlements are now paying for obesity related costs. Long story short, being overweight is becoming extremely costly for a nation that is beginning to socialize public health.
The US is not the only country struggling with obesity. Nations all around the world are beginning to witness their own ‘endemics’ of obesity, echoing calls to action in the World Health Organization and The United Nations. A recent study from the Lancet Medical Journal shows that obesity and being overweight are now international issues, affecting 1/3rd of the world population, 27% more since 1980(All stats for adults only, as only 14% of children are overweight/obese, but have experiences a 47% increase in obesity/overweight since 1980).
I am not here to deny the claim that being overweight is a serious health issue, nor that it is costly to society. These are very true and accurate claims that have been proven. I am writing this article is to ask a basic, yet overlooked, question:
Is the rise of obesity a ‘blessing’ in disguise?
Look back to the chart by the Economist. Note that the vast majority are developing nations, 13 out of the 20. With a few key exceptions, most notably the United States, obesity is an endemic rising throughout the developing world. Nations like China and India, each with over 1 billion citizens, are experiencing problems with obesity and weight. Not only is obesity on the rise, but we’re seeing it in numbers never seen before in the largest nations in the world. With the examples of China and India, we also see it on the rise in nations notorious for malnourished and underweight populations.
We’re talking about the same nations that are notorious for struggling with malnutrition and deadly starvation. These same nations now have people suffering from a greater access to food. Even the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations states that “As the economies of developing countries continue to improve, the risk of becoming obese increases across all socio-economic classes as a result of improved access to food, decreased physical activity, and the consumption of “western” diets (Popkin, 1993; Cavalli-Sforza et al., 1996; Drewnowski and Popkin, 1997).” This means that obesity rates in the developing world are due principally to the rising levels of capital available to the average person and/or the decreasing costs of food. Either way, it’s a win and people are packing on some weight now.
We’re seeing a substantial transition from underweight to overweight populations in the developing world; areas where the vast majority of people were recently struggling to live with a meager access to food. The trade off is statistically visible. It is in this regard that I believe that we should be celebrating obesity. We are finally seeing people gaining the means to purchase food for adequate nutrition, or at least the cost of food is going down. For much of the developing world, being overweight or obese is still a sign of wealth/prosperity, and, to a degree, we should accept that. People are becoming wealthier, and therefore, healthier.
It is a sign of elitism and privilege that, at least in the West, obesity is being given more screen time and attention than starvation and malnutrition. As it turns out, I wasn’t too far from being right. In the developing world, the problem of obesity is now inverse: We see that the impoverished are typically limited in dietary choices, forcing the consumption of high calorie, low nutrition, foods, as indicated by a research paper based on a UK study. This pattern is typically the rule rather than the exception in developed countries. No wonder that the well positioned in society are so picky about obesity. They’re not suffering from it, but are footing the cost. Meanwhile, we still see around 16 million children living in ‘food insecure’ households in America alone. Obviously the degree of nutrition is much different if compared to populations in more depraved areas, such as an African nation. The point remains, however. You are much, much more likely to die from being underweight and suffering from a lack of food than being overweight. Adult or child, the threat of hunger prevails the threat of too much food/too little exercise.
The issue of malnutrition and inadequate access to food should be given priority number #1 over the issue of obesity, both domestically and internationally.
The issues of obesity are real, serious, and should not be ignored. For the United States, this is definitely an issue. Luckily, NGOs around the world still see that the issue of undernourishment comes first. Even better, we see that overall malnutrition is on the decline worldwide as much as 50% in some regions! Sadly, there is some way still to go. Around 800 million people around the world are still malnourished, with 177 million being children. Whenever I hear an ad for obesity or about getting active, I can’t help but thinking that the money could be going to people who don’t have enough to eat. For how much trouble and difficulty obesity may be causing, it dims in comparison to starvation. Yet on TV, which problem is getting more screen time?
If only we could get as excited about stopping hunger as we do over losing weight and obesity. Undoubtedly, for many people around the world, obesity is more than a blessing in disguise.