The Weight of Progress
Life has improved for lots of people. Economic development and globalization has brought many out of poverty. Kenyan farmers shop and bank with their cell phones. Hundreds of millions of Chinese have moved from the impoverishment of the Cultural Revolution to high levels of education and ambitious middle class lives.
As civilization “progresses” much is also lost. Environmental degradation vies with climate change as a future threat to our food supply – even the ability to live in our most historically important cities. But with such losses arrive ungainly gains:
Humans weigh a lot more. And the increases in obesity are particularly stark outside the US.
According to recent data published in Population Health Metrics, the number of overweight and obese adults in the developing world has quadrupled in less than 30 years, in the period 1980 -2008. Huge jumps in obesity were seen in the Middle East, Latin America, and Southeast Asia.
How Bad Is It?
According to the research from UK’s Overseas Development Institute, authors of the report, one in three people are now overweight or obese; an increase in thirty years of fifty percent.
The future increase in heart attacks, strokes, cancer and particularly diabetes will prove dramatic. Overall health may will deteriorate, while health care costs may skyrocket.
This is no surprise to many health companies. Big Pharma has been targeting diabetes and cancer for a long time, observing the clear demographic trends. The steady increase in antibiotic resistance – as antibiotics get used more and more – has not occasioned similar research largesse.
Curing bacterial infections is generally a one shot deal. Even when you price your drug sky high, the profit margins are slimmer than with chronic disease pharmaceuticals. The needed new drugs do not exist. So when major bacterial epidemics do hit, the economic and civilizational costs will be greater.
How Bad is Bad?
Worse than it looks. The global data is based on the widely used but eighteenth century measure of body mass index – BMI. Arbitrarily, 25 and above is considered overweight.
This is a misleading measure for many world populations.
Mexicans weigh less than Americans. In Mexico, the diabetes rate is 16%, versus less than 10% in the US.
Different populations possess different genes. In Mexico and Asia, people develop diabetes at much lower weights than is commonly seen in North America. Multiple genes, including some inherited from Neanderthals are blamed for the high diabetic rates, but lots of other factors come into the mix (see below.)
Another unfortunate result is TOFI – thin outside, fat outside. In the US you can witness the effect in retired fashion models, whose diets of tobacco/coffee/sugar set them up for lots of unhealthy changes, including early diabetes. In the rest of the world TOFI is a pretty routine occurrence. As this abdominal fat – hidden from sight – also acts as a huge endocrine gland, this becomes bad news for all.
At this stage, 70% of North Americans are said to be overweight. In Latin America it’s 63%.
Why Is the Population Getting So Big?
Lack of exercise, plus sugary, fatty foods are routinely blamed. Yet this puts most of the onus on the individual.
That’s not fair.
With globalization arrive major cultural and social changes. Coca-cola may be “junk food” to many Americans, but in much of the developing world, it is aspirational – just as Prada bags are to Miami teenagers. The food companies that have spent tens of billions figuring out how a Dorito can provide eating pleasure just short of feeling full are selling their wares to working people everywhere – as quickly as rising wages permit. Often times the new foods arrive in tiny packages which showcase their “glamour.”
When you get a television set you don’t have to walk as much to find entertainment. Cell phones let you know how your neighbors and friends are doing without visiting them – or moving at all.
What Can Be Done To Reverse Global Obesity?
Stress is said to make people eat more. New York City is arguably one of the more stressful environments in the developed world. Yet New Yorkers are living about two and a half years longer than other Americans.
Much of the difference is civilizational – involving culture, economics, and urban design.
To get to most places in NY you can drive – but you may not be able to park. If you do find a parking space, it may cost you what’s a daily wage in much of the rest of the nation.
But there are subways and buses. They move fast. They are cheap (relatively.)
People have to walk to them to use them. So they walk. And the social conviviality of cities appears to have other healthy results.
Much recent data argues two points: 1. If people walk after meals they can really cut their risks of obesity and diabetes 2. Intense exercise for surprisingly short periods – four minutes for example – seem to change gene expression and increase insulin sensitivity.
Some governments are paying attention. They don’t want to spend what the US does – 18% of GDP – on health care. It’s cheaper – and far better for economic productivity – to keep people healthy.
Change is difficult. People will not and should not give up their cell phones. They will contain to describe semi-orgasmic experiences in restaurants providing extraordinary quantities of salt, sugar and fat with every course.
But you can train people to love their traditional diets. You can set up parks and make it safe and easy for people to use them. You can get people to walk around their neighborhoods and cook their own meals – including the foods they’ve grown themselves.
And then have them walk after each meal. Simple things work. They work pretty much everywhere.
They also save lives.
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