IT’S EASY to make the assumption that obesity is an individual problem, having more to do with personal health than with social justice. After all, people make their own decisions about what they put on their plates and how much they put in their mouths.
But many people—and many churches—are starting to see not only the public health consequences of the obesity epidemic, but also the broader forces that contribute to it.
And “epidemic” isn’t too strong a word for the growing problem of obesity. The numbers in the U.S. are unsettling, with startling increases over the past few decades. But the worst may be yet to come, as billions of people in formerly developing countries are gradually globalized into “fast-food nation” lifestyles.
The transition has already begun. According to a recent U.N. report, more than 1 billion people around the world are overweight. Each year excess weight and obesity cause 2.8 million deaths—65 percent of the world’s population now lives in countries where being overweight kills more people than being underweight. And it’s only going to get worse: According to Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, by 2030 as many as 5.1 million people in poor countries will die each year before the age of 60 from unhealthy diets and diet-related diseases such as diabetes, 1.3 million more than today.
The definitions of hunger and malnutrition are changing, and as a result so are the responses—but perhaps not quickly enough.
In the 1960s and ’70s, the cause of hunger was diagnosed by most officials as primarily a lack of adequate calories, and thus the response was a singular focus on increased outputs. But the diagnosis was at best simplistic—even decades ago, in a time of extensive famine, hunger was rooted as much in poverty and powerlessness as in a literal shortage of food.
That’s even truer today. The world produces enough food to feed everyone—17 percent more calories per person than 30 years ago, according to the World Hunger Education Service, enough to provide everyone in the world with sufficient nourishment. The main cause of hunger is still poverty (and the economic and political systems that cause poverty), along with war, racism, and, increasingly, the effects of climate change.
And while undernutrition is still the main hunger issue in the developing world, obesity is more and more being recognized as another form of malnutrition.
WHILE OBESITY IS undeniably related to a person’s lifestyle, personal choices around food cannot be separated from the political, social, and economic context. As De Schutter put it, “Our food systems are making people sick ... we must tackle the systemic problems that generate poor nutrition in all its forms.”
Those systemic problems, which result in an overabundance of cheap, over-processed food, include everything from ag policies (such as the promotion, and often subsidizing, of soybeans and cereals—especially corn—over fruits and vegetables) to the marketing of unhealthy foods to children and adults. (U.S. companies spent $8.5 billion advertising food, candy, and beverages, not even counting alcohol, in 2010.)
Globalization, of course, magnifies it all worldwide—developing countries export high-quality food to rich countries and import refined grains. Poor families who in the past may have eaten a diet high in fruits and vegetables from local farms now rely mainly on starchy staples and ingest higher proportions of fats and sugars. As De Schutter put it, “Urbanization, supermarketization, and the global spread of modern lifestyles have shaken up traditional food habits. The result is a public health disaster.” In other words, along with the super-processed food, we’re exporting diabetes and heart disease, and it’s not surprising that the worst effects are on people who are poor, particularly poor women.
The U.N. report named five strategies to move toward a more sustainable approach to nutrition: 1) tax unhealthy products; 2) regulate foods high in saturated fats, salt, and sugar; 3) crack down on junk food advertising; 4) overhaul misguided agricultural subsidies that make certain ingredients cheaper than others; and 5) support local food production so that consumers have access to healthy, fresh, and nutritious foods. None of those actions will be easy to accomplish in a domestic and international system where profit trumps health justice every step of the way.
The good news is that people, including people of faith, are starting to pay attention. There’s a growing recognition that what we put in our bodies isn’t just about ourselves; it has everything to do with our relationships with our communities and our broader world—human and natural. Food connects us, in profound ways we’re only beginning to understand, to the beautiful, fragile, precious web of life.
Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners.