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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Too Fat, Too Thin

Air Date: Week of

For this first time in human history, there are as many overweight individuals in the world as there are people who are going hungry. Gary Gardner, one of the authors of a study published by the Worldwatch Institute, speaks with host Steve Curwood about these findings and the extent of health problems worldwide caused by poor nutrition.


CURWOOD: As we enter the twenty-first century, a plague that many expected would be defeated in the twentieth century is still rampant: hunger. As much as a fifth of the world's people still go to bed hungry every night. But according to a new study by the Worldwatch Institute, there are now as many people eating too much as there are those suffering from too little. Gary Gardner is a senior researcher at Worldwatch. He says that poor nutrition accounts for at least half of the global disease burden.

GARDNER: Whether we're getting too little nutrients or too many, both of those can have severe health effects. People who suffer from hunger also often suffer from diseases of deficiency, infectious diseases in particular. People who eat too much suffer form chronic diseases, things like heart disease and cancer and diabetes.

CURWOOD: What's the societal cost of malnutrition, that is, overeating and undereating?

GARDNER: It's huge. The World Bank did a study last year of India that found that between 10 and 28 billion dollars was the cost in lost productivity, for example, of people who are hungry or malnourished in India. In the United States, the cost of obesity is measured for both direct and indirect costs at over $118 billion, which is about 12 percent of our health care costs.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about the situation between the industrial world and the developing world here. Is there really a split? In other words, the have-nots, the poor part of the world, is the one that's underfed; and we have overweight people in the industrial world?

GARDNER: It would be natural to think that that is the case, but that's really not what's going on. Increasingly, we're finding that overweight is increasing very rapidly in developing countries.

CURWOOD: Really.

GARDNER: In part that's because, when we get a little bit of extra money and we want our meals not to be so monotonous, one of the first things we buy is livestock products. But they're also products that are high in fat. In part it's because of urbanization. As people move to cities, they have more access to bad foods. And it's also because, as they move to cities, they expend less energy than they did when they lived in the countryside. So for all of those reasons, we're seeing a rapid rise in overweight in developing countries. The rate of overweight in China, for example, jumped from nine percent to 15 percent in just three years in the early 1990s. In fact, the World Health Organization has called the increase in overweight and obesity the greatest neglected public health policy of our time.

CURWOOD: In your study, at the end, you propose some solutions and responses, and one of them, you go after the advertising industry and you say: Is Ronald McDonald really so different from Joe Camel?

GARDNER: There are a lot of interesting parallels between the use of tobacco in the United States and the pushing, the advertising, of nutritionally poor foods. Both industries target young people, and both industries have very severe health effects. And both have been largely unregulated in terms of their advertising.

CURWOOD: So are you saying that corporations shouldn't be allowed to advertise fast food to kids?

GARDNER: That's one possibility we might look at. In Europe, several European countries already restrict the kind of advertising that can be aimed at children.

CURWOOD: In your study, "Underfed and Overfed," you mention a food tax as a possible solution. How would this work?

GARDNER: This is basically the idea of a Yale psychologist named Kelly Brownell. And the idea is to look at the nutritional value per calorie; and if there's a low nutritional value per unit or per calorie, that food would be more heavily taxed. That would be, you know, sweets and foods that are high in sugar often have low nutrient value, but they're very high in calories. Fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, are not high in calories and have a very high nutrient value. So it would be a way to try to dissuade people from eating nutritionally poor foods, and then to use the money that's collected from that tax to do nutrition education or to subsidize healthy foods.

CURWOOD: Gary Gardner, along with Brian Halweil wrote Underfed and Overfed: The Global Epidemic of Malnutrition, published by Worldwatch. Thanks for speaking with us, Gary.

GARDNER: Thank you, Steve.



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