Guest editorial

Towards the end of December last year, China issued its “Physical Activity Guidelines for Chinese People (2021)” ­after its State Council found that more than 50 per cent of Chinese adults are overweight, and that obesity rates among urban and rural residents of all ages were rising. In particular, a study a year ago found that 20 per cent of children between six and 17 years old, and ten per cent of children under six years old, were obese. Given that China was once considered to have one of the leanest populations, this must have been of some concern, hence the government’s move to encourage physical activity.

China is among the many countries where the infiltration of the Western fast food culture has seen some movement away from traditional diets. We have seen this at play in Guyana as well, where over the last 15 years there has been a surfeit of fast-food chains offering deep-fried and super-sized meals, and a move away from home-cooked food. These changes, coupled with improvement in lifestyle due to rise in income ­levels and technological advances like video games and home streaming services, that have led to more people becoming sedentary, have contributed to the increase in the global obese population.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), at present, over 40 per cent of all men and women (2.2 billion people) are overweight or obese, and unhealthy diets are linked to at least eight million deaths per year. Additionally, the WHO said, up to the year 2020, 39 million children under the age of five were overweight or obese, while 340 million children and teenagers between the ages of five to 19 were overweight or obese.

However, unlike China, no other country has been or is addressing this proactively. At the Global Food Governance Conference in December last year, apart from addressing hunger, health leaders noted that collectively, the world seemed comfortable with an unhealthy system of highly processed food prepared with copious amounts of fat, salt and sugar. While the sale of these foods enrich the conglomerates pushing them, they are literally killing people.

The conference noted that prior to Covid-19 more than ten million deaths per year could be attributed to unhealthy diets, and the pandemic put the world’s obese population at risk for illness or death once infected. Broad guidelines were given as to what countries could do to alleviate the obesity epidemic; it is yet to be seen whether any have been implemented. It is worth noting here that aside from people’s addiction to unhealthy food, the manufacturers and fast-food chains have deep pockets and do not hesitate to lobby governments.

There is also another side to the coin. According to forecasts published this month, the obesity treatment market, which will include services as well as medicines like pills and patches, is expected to grow exponentially. Key players include the Kellogg Company, Atkins, Medtronic, F Hoffmann-La Roche, Pfizer, Merck, Roche, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Shionogi, Herbalife International, Bayer AG, Amway, the Carlyle Group and Lifesciences. Governments’ lack of action is a win-win for the diet companies as well as Big Pharma, which appears to be making hefty investments in anti-obesity drugs and dietary supplements, aside from their already high stakes in drugs that treat chronic non-communicable diseases. In fact, the dietary supplements market is anticipated to reach US$349.4 billion by 2026.

It is more than passing strange that so many people who want or need to lose weight prefer to invest in so-called magic diet pills rather than avail themselves of healthy food and exercise. Guyana’s markets ­offer a cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables, but the pull of fast foods along with their convenience remains strong. The advertisements, which typically show happy people chowing down on burgers, French fries and fried chicken, also help to seal the deal. There is very little consideration about the cost to health and the country. As an aside, this newspaper reported in 2019 that Guyana’s potato fries’ imports were pegged at some Guy$650 million.

While China’s approach to stamping out obesity might not be the best for every country—one imagines folks would baulk at governments issuing exercise guidelines—at least it is proactively addressing the problem. The shortages that were created when the world was forced to contract in 2020 point to a need for global food policy reform, with each country taking sustainability, its population’s health, the environment and climate change into consideration.

The longer we put off decolonising our food systems, the worse it will get. Food insecurity is a real threat which can no longer be ­ignored.

—Stabroek News

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