Fight Obesity With Economics, Not Health Campaigns, Experts Say
2012-05-09 0:00

By Christopher Wanjek |

Nutrition experts gathered here last week for the World Nutrition Rio 2012 meeting harped upon familiar themes: obesity and unhealthy food. Yet surprisingly many of them, in leading academic and government positions of public health, apparently have all but given up on tried-and-true public-health campaigns.

"Want to end obesity? Then talk to the ministries of finance, not health," said Philip James of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and president of the London-based International Association for the Study of Obesity. "The impact of health education is zero."

The food industry is making us fat, according to James, and efforts to educate the public on proper nutrition or to ask industry to voluntarily reduce unhealthy ingredients such as sugar, salt, fat and myriad additives is "a load of diverting, delaying rubbish," he said. Government-initiated economic policies are needed to make healthy food affordable.

While James possesses a more extreme opinion among researchers at the meeting, he reflected a general tone of pure frustration among health experts in their efforts to tame the obesity pandemic. (In fact, a study out Monday, May 7, suggests by 2030, 42 percent of Americans will be obese.)

"There’s not a country in the world where the obesity rate isn’t climbing," said Barry Popkin, a renowned nutrition expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who presided over several talks. "China now has more children with diabetes than the United States."

Popkin explained how governments and multinational corporations shape diets on a global scale, from agricultural policies that favor the production of cheap sweeteners and meats, to the manufacturing of ultraprocessed foods that now dominate supermarket shelves. He has long advocated for a sugar tax on soda.

Carlos Monteiro of the University of São Paulo told meeting attendees that ultraprocessed food is "the biggest concern" in the obesity pandemic.


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