There are now over one billion overweight people worldwide, compared to 800 million who are undernourished, Professor Barry Popkin, University of North Carolina, said at the 26th Conference of the International Association of Agricultural Economists, Gold Coast, Australia. The main reasons for the boom in the number of overweight people globally are eating habits and less physical activity, he said.

While malnutrition has been slowly going down, obesity has been spreading rampantly, said Popkin. He said “Obesity is the norm globally and under nutrition, while still important in a few countries and in targeted populations in many others, is no longer the dominant disease. The reality is that globally far more obesity than undernutrition exists and the rates of change for the former are large and positive while those of the latter are small and negative.?

The health consequences of obesity and overweight used to be more prevalent among the rich, now the poor are becoming obese/overweight, he said. Obesity is now longer an urban problem, it is now a common problem in rural areas as well.

Prof. Popkin cited both rural and urban China, where people are watching more TV, getting around in motorized vehicles, eating fewer cereals and more animal based foods. Obesity/overweight is spreading fast in China.

In order to tackle this growing problem governments should develop strategies, such as making healthier foods cheaper, he said. Taxes could be put on high calorie foods, while subsidies could be given for healthier options. This, said Popkin, would encourage people to eat more healthily.

Prof. Popkin added ?Unfortunately, there are no national examples of reductions in obesity related to major pushes on the food or activity side at the national level?.A central issue affecting the world’s public health is the need to shift the relative prices of a range of foods to encourage healthier, less energy dense and more nutrient dense foods. A second key issue is figuring out ways to affect to reduce caloric intake while not adversely affecting the poor’s nutritional status.?

Many politicians would find it extremely difficult to start imposing taxes on ?unhealthy’ high calorie foods. However, subsidizing farmers so that they produce more healthy foods might be more feasible.

The average American family spends 14% of its income on food, compared to 24% in Japan. Japanese people, who have access to a much more comprehensive and integrated public transport system than Americans do, are more physically active – they walk a great deal more. The obesity problem in Japan is growing, but it is much smaller than in the USA.

The obesity problem must be fought on two fronts:

1. People need to become more physically active.
2. People need to change their eating habits.

The International Association of Agricultural Economists (IAAE) 26th Annual Conference on ?The Contribution of Agricultural Economics to Critical Policy Issues?, Gold Coast Convention Centre, Qld, Australia. August 12-18, 2006

Written by: Christian Nordqvist
Editor: Medical News Today