The obesity epidemic is a problem facing the globe. Yes, yes, I know. You’ve probably already heard all about it on NPR, on the television, from Michelle Obama, your neighbors — the list could go on. But has anybody told you when and why it really became a problem?
Dr. Barry Popkin can tell you. When he visited UVM as a part of the Burack Distinguished Lecture series, tell us he did. The answer is all in humanity’s changing activity and consumption patterns, a process Popkin deemed the “Nutrition Transition.” This “transition” — the focus of Dr. Popkin’s research at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill — reaches all the way back into our ancestors’ hunter-gatherer days.
“What this story is about is really a biological mismatch,” he said. “On the one hand, we were created with all these sweet preferences, … with this biology where even if you drink something it doesn’t necessarily affect what you eat, [and with a] love of fatty foods.”
It seems evident that eating too much sugar and fat, as well as drinking one’s calories, will lead to overconsumption, but these tendencies were much needed in those early days of foraging. Food was not always available, and eating fats meant humans could sustain themselves in times of scarcity. If we drank liquids and then ate less, we might not have gorged ourselves on food when we had infrequent access to it. Not gorging could mean starvation later. Sugar came attached to highly nutritious fruits. Throw all those factors together along with our dislike of backbreaking work (“Has anyone ever planted rice?” asked Popkin) in a modern world where calories and technology are plentiful, and bam! You have obesity … right?
Yet Popkin maintains that this is not the end of the story as one might think. Up until the 1940’s, overconsumption of calories was at first only a problem for a few amongst the rich. The wealthy had all the servants and food security, but they also had the money to compensate for the limitations of being overweight. Even then, however, not that many individuals were overweight.
Once we reached the 70’s and the 80’s, things began to change. “In the high income world our food [and activity] patterns changed dramatically, … we watched TV, we started eating away from home, we went from eating one snack every other day to eating two or three or four,” Popkin said. “We started eating a lot more calories and working a lot less, and obesity and overweight exploded.”
The technology of the 70’s and beyond also ensured our daily energy expenditure, aka burning calories, declined. The mechanization of heating food (microwaves), of washing clothes (washing machines), and of traveling (cars and buses) means that we don’t burn as many calories.
Despite these changes in the relatively wealthy Western world, there were still poor countries that had slim and starving populations. Obesity was not yet a problem of the poor. However, Popkin told of how he watched this change almost overnight while he was doing research in China. In 1989, no one was overweight. In 1991, the story was completely different — obesity had now become a problem of the poor.
“That same technology that got to us, got to them,” Popkin said to the crowd. “A country like India is going to have 100 million diabetics in a few years, just to give you a sense, and that’s the country that has two thirds of the underweight in the world today.”
100 million. Well, dang.
So we know the history of the problem, but the solution is not so clear. The “magic bullet,” as Popkin put it, is not evident, except for possibly sugar-sweetened beverages.
Soda and fruit juice — yes, fruit juice is a sugar-sweetened beverage — are two culprits that, if we eliminated them, would cut a significant numbers of calories, according to Popkin.
20% of Americans get 900 calories a day from sugar added to their diet, and another 20% getting 500 calories, which is quite a bit if you consider that 2,000 calories is approximately the amount an average person is supposed to eat.
Popkin believes that changing our diet back to one that has plenty of fruits, vegetables, and grains is another important shift that can help solve this problem. The catch, he said, is that this diet is not affordable and accessible for everyone, nor do we even produce enough produce in America to feed everyone this way. What is affordable and accessible are the processed, packaged, fatty, and sugary foods.
While this seems extremely daunting, Popkin remains determined to find a solution, whether that would be improved labeling, the banning of soft drinks, or WIC vouchers for farmers markets.
“We really want to benefit America rather than just those who can afford it,” he said.
Haylley Johnson is the Program Specialist for the University of Vermont’s Food Systems Spire — the University-wide transdisciplinary initiative to promote food systems research, education, and outreach. Prior to her time with the Spire, Haylley graduated from UVM in 2011 with a dual degree in English and Economics, and concluded her four years there as the Editor in Chief of The Vermont Cynic, UVM’s student-run campus newspaper. The paper won the 2011 Pacemaker Award — the Pulitzer Prize of College Journalism — under Haylley’s and her successor’s tenures. She has also written for Seven Days, the local alt weekly, as their first-ever food intern and is generally known amongst friends as a walking encyclopedia of eating establishments in Burlington proper.