Tuesday, August 15, 2006

World Full Of Fat People

World now has more fat people than hungry ones: expert
by Lawrence Bartlett
Mon Aug 14, 5:22 AM ET

The world now has more overweight people than hungry ones and governments should design economic strategies to influence national diets, a conference of international experts have heard.

The transition from a starving world to an obese one had happened with dramatic speed, US professor Barry Popkin told the annual conference of the International Association of Agricultural Economists on Monday.

"The reality is that globally far more obesity than undernutrition exists," Popkin said, adding that while hunger was slowly declining, obesity was rapidly spreading.

There are more than a billion overweight people in the world and 800 million who are undernourished, he said at the Gold Coast convention centre near Brisbane. The world population is estimated at about 6.5 billion.

"Obesity is the norm globally and undernutrition, while still important in a few countries and in targeted populations in many others, is no longer the dominant disease."

The "burden of obesity", with its related illnesses, was also shifting from the rich to the poor, not only in urban but in rural areas around the world, he said.

China typified the changes, with a major shift in diet from cereals to animal products and vegetable oils accompanied by a decline in physical work, more motorised transport and more television viewing.

But all countries had failed to address the obesity "boom", the University of North Carolina professor said.

Food prices could be used to manipulate people's diets and tilt them towards healthier options, he suggested.

"For instance, if we charge money for every calorie of soft drink and fruit drink that was consumed, people would consume less of it.

"If we subsidise fruit and vegetable production, people would consume more of it and we would have a healthier diet."

University of Minnesota professor Benjamin Senauer used a comparative study of lifestyles in the United States and Japan to show how the costs of food and transport play a role in the problem.

Japan has one of the world's lowest rates of obesity and the US one of the highest.

"The average Japanese household spends almost a quarter of its income on food compared to under 14 percent in the US," Senauer said.

While a direct tax on food in the US to reduce obesity would not be politically acceptable, agricultural subsidies which resulted in cheap food could be reduced.

But other factors such as exercise also played an important role and again economic influences were involved, he said.

"Japanese cities are based on efficient public transport -- and walking. The average American commutes to work, drives to the supermarket and does as little walking as possible."

The average Japanese man walks four miles (6.4 kilometres) a day while almost a quarter of US adults may only walk between 1,000 and 3,000 steps a day, Senauer said.

While the relative cost of calories and fat had decreased over time, technology had eliminated much of the need for physical activity during work.

For most Americans, getting enough physical activity now required a conscious commitment to exercise and often cost money, such as the price of a round of golf or membership of a gym."

"Obesity and overweight bring with them significant risks of chronic disease and premature death and adjusting domestic policy to encourage a less sedentary lifestyle is literally a matter of life and death," he told the conference.

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