The fight against obesity usually focuses on the role the individual plays in safeguarding their own well-being but has rarely focused on the role society plays.
According to a leading expert on global health, Anne-Emmauelle Birn, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, in order to tackle obesity, there also needs to be an equality of condition, as well as opportunity, to make the right food choices.
Public health professionals say that poor diet is because of individual choices and lack of education.
Theodore M. Brown professor at the University of Rochester, department of public health services disagrees.
“It is naive to focus solely on the individual [change of behaviour and lifestyle e.g. eat properly] and assume that the individual is making bad choices about food selection,” Brown said.
There are people who can not eat healthy because of several contributing factors.
Birn says the reason people have poor nutrition is not because they don’t know how to pick but because of the way food is produced in this part of the world.
The problem is mass production, he says. It is happening globally.
Birn says in earlier times, people would grow their own food but now it is a business therefore people have a harder time eating healthier foods like they used to.
Mass production is cheaper and this has made processed foods cheaper per calorie than fresh foods, she says.
“Obesity is considered in terms of individual behaviour, food consumption, exercise and then sometimes in terms of intermediary factors such as sell of soda in schools, array of food items available, and lack of supermarkets in low-income neighbourhoods,” Birn said.
Birn says the food that is bad is cheaper than the organic foods despite the many ingredients, marketing costs [advertisements], and redistribution chains. This is because of the industralization of food productions.
Birn says in many poor areas in places where fresh food is abundant, healthy food is expensive. In homes where there are no fridges, or good stovetops, or where household members work long hours, fast food is convenient.
“Those suffering from obesity because they are not eating the right kind of diet, are victims of a larger set of social-economic circumstances, geographic locations, lack of access to food, and the corporate culture that bombards them with advertisments telling them to buy fast foods and drinks with high sugar content,” Brown said.
“It is hard to compete with this very cheap food that seems nutritious and is very cheap per calorie,” Birn said.
Birn says one third of global grocery sales are in the hands of 30 food retailers and just five companies control that 90 percent of the world grain trade.
The focus solely on individual behaviour change around diet and exercise is clearly inadequate. It is inadequate because ten companies own all the food companies and the food is not healthy.
She says what is going on in society as opposed to the individual, needs to be addressed. This can be done in severals ways.
Firstly, limiting of advertisements for processed, calorie dense, low-nutrition foods.
Secondly, ensuring comprehensive distribution and affordability of health food [it should be every where and affordable].
Thirdly, structure work hours and regulate housing to enable adequate time/conditions for exercise and food preparations.
Fourtly, provide healthy, safe, and culturally appropriate environments for physical activity e.g. pollution controls, parks, bike lanes, and sidewalks.
Birn recently launched Comrades in Health Internationalists, Abroad and at Home, which she edited with Brown. The book traces the International solidarity efforts of left wing U.S. health activists during the course of the 20th century and into the 21st.
She says she hopes that the book will draw attention to the longstanding international activities of the American health left and the lessens they brought home, and to inform and inspire the young generation.