The number of 5- to 19-year-olds who are obese will outnumber those who are moderately or severely underweight by 2022 if current trends continue.
This projection in a mid-October World Health Organization (WHO)-Imperial College London report caught me off guard. I read the report summary twice to confirm I’d understood correctly.
After all, we published two EthicsDaily.com news briefs in mid-September related to hunger and poverty – one about global hunger increasing again to 815 million people, the other about 15 million U.S. households being food insecure (not knowing from where their next meal would come).
These were preceded by a mid-July news brief on a U.N. report stating that 12.5 percent of children in 41 “high income” nations are food insecure, and an October 2016 news brief on a World Bank-UNICEF (U.N. Children’s Fund) report saying 385 million children lived in extreme poverty.
A few mornings later, as I was mulling over the data, I saw this NBC News headline: “America’s Obesity Epidemic Reaches Record High.”
The article highlighted newly released Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, revealing that 40 percent of U.S. adults and 20 percent of children aged 6-19 are obese.
“Overall, 70.7 percent of Americans are either overweight or obese, meaning that an unhealthy weight has become the norm,” NBC News stated.
So, to recap the data:
- 815 million people experience hunger worldwide.
- 385 million children live in extreme poverty.
- 12.5 percent of all children in “high income” nations faced food insecurity (including 15 million U.S. households).
- 24 million 5- to 19-year-olds worldwide are obese.
- 213 million are overweight but “below the threshold for obesity.”
- 20 percent of U.S. children and adolescents are obese.
Yet, the relationship between malnourishment and obesity is complex.
It isn’t solely a matter of the well-to-do having so much food that they overeat while others die or live in fear of death due to insufficient food (though this is surely a central concern).
To “muddy the waters” a bit more, consider this statement from the Imperial College-WHO report’s lead author, Majid Ezzati, of Imperial’s School of Public Health:
“Over the past four decades, obesity rates in children and adolescents have soared globally and continue to do so in low- and middle-income countries. More recently, they have plateaued in higher income countries, although obesity levels remain unacceptably high. These worrying trends reflect the impact of food marketing and policies across the globe, with healthy nutritious foods too expensive for poor families and communities.”
Healthy food options are unaffordable for many. So, even when children and families are able to obtain enough food, they often consume less healthy options, which can lead to obesity (and its adverse health impacts).
As the U.N. explained in their “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World: 2017” report, “The coexistence of food insecurity and obesity – even in the same household – is often seen as paradoxical, but there are many explanations for this. As resources for food become scarce, people often choose to eat lower-cost, less-healthy, more energy-dense foods, choices that can lead to people becoming overweight and obese as their means to access healthy food diminish.”
One struggle begets another struggle. One form of malnutrition is exchanged for another.
The dynamics are complex, and no simple answers exist. Addressing these challenges will require awareness and engagement at all levels and across all sectors.
With the humble acknowledgement that significant government action and international cooperation will be required to curb such harmful trends, how can people of faith at the local church level engage constructively these troubling trends?
Here are three initial suggestions:
1. Educate yourselves about these issues and share what you learn with others.
Just as a well-informed electorate is essential for democracy to function effectively, so too is an informed church, community, state, nation and world essential for progress in combatting global ills.
We can’t address a problem we don’t know about, and we can’t be sure that our “help” is productive and needed unless we understand the challenges we face.
2. Host educational programs on related topics, such as poverty and hunger or having a healthy lifestyle and diet.
A local group reached out to the church my wife and I were pastoring several years ago, asking if we would provide space (which we gladly did) for them to do a demonstration about cooking healthy and affordable meals. It was a free event open to the community.
People and organizations in your community might be able to conduct similar programs as well as further inform your congregation about various needs around you and how your church can help.
3. Support and promote your local food pantry.
Many congregations volunteer time and send donations to food pantries in their communities, but perhaps it is time to review what types of food are being donated and distributed.
Are they mostly healthy items? If not, how can your church provide more nutritious options for all ages?