The Paradox of Obesity and Malnutrition

Today is Blog Action Day, an annual event in which tens of thousands of bloggers address a subject they have chosen by voting earlier in the year. This year’s subject is food.

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

A single glance at the photo of a skin-and-bones baby in the arms of a skin-and-bones mother is all it takes for the brain to call up the concept of malnutrition and its probable result, a miserable, painful death.

While we sympathize with people starving in Darfur, Sudan, and elsewhere in Africa, India, North Korea, and other nations under intolerable stress, we look around for someone to make the famine end, and then we realize we are the ones we are waiting for. If we don’t act, at least in telling our country’s leaders that they must act, we must assume that no one else will, and the people who stare at us through the camera lens will die because no one cares, or cares enough.

Malnutriton is easy to recognize in the stick-fiigure human beings we see on the nightly news. It’s much harder to identify malnutrition in the morbidly obese – people who weigh at least 100 pounds (45 kg) more than is good for them. People who are stirred by the sight of malnutrition in the painfully thin are often disgusted by the massive bodies of those who are obese by virtue of malnutrition.

I don’t mean to equate the plight of those suffering from famine with that of those suffering from an abundance of food that offers virtually no nourishment, only, and temporarily, a full belly. These are the malnourished people in the developed world, and the result of such malnutrition is also likely be a miserable, painful death.

In the case of those who are morbidly obese, death will take longer to come. It will likely come in the form of a heart attack or stroke, or the consequences of diabetes – heart failure, kidney failure, dementia caused by the deterioration of nerves and blood vessels in the brain among them.

How can it be that so many people in the world’s richest nations, where food is obscenely plentiful, can be both fat and malnourished? The answer is poverty. One-third of American adults (and thirty percent of American children) are obese. A far smaller percentage are morbidly obese, but no one seems to be keeping statistics to that fine a point. In America, sixteen percent of people live below the poverty line, and many more, while not officially in poverty take in too little money in the course of a week to be able to buy properly nourishing food, or even to live in a place where such food can be bought.

In America, the corner grocery store has all but disappeared, giving way to large supermarkets that serve a more affluent area in which most people must drive to buy their food. These are the stores that stock fresh meat, fruit, and vegetables – the foods we need to eat a healthful diet. Lacking automobiles or any other way to get to the supermarkets, people in the poorer neighborhoods must rely on convenience stores. These sell almost nothing but prepared foods, full of sugars and salt, starch and fat. And the poorest of the poor buy the cheapest foods they can find, mainly snack foods and cakes. These fill their bellies for a while, then soon leave those who eat them as hungry as before. So they eat more low-nutrition but cheap snacks and never experience the satisfaction of a nourishing meal. And the weight, born of sugars and salt, starches and fats, piles on.

In many, the result is akin to alcoholism – a never-ending craving to satisfy the itch that is addiction. It’s easy to look down on the alcoholic or person who is morbidly obese if you’ve never been in their place. The causes of alcoholism are several, including an inherited inability to process the sugars in alcohol efficiently – nobody’s fault. The causes of obesity are fewer, and generally come down to societal indifference to social and economic justice. That’s the fault of those who could object, but do not.

Ask yourself this: When was the last time you saw a person who was both morbidly obese and rich? Rich people don’t have to stuff themselves with food devoid of nutrients to stave off the pain of hunger. Poor people often do. Rich people can get their food from the best markets. Poor people buy from convenience stores.

And the point is this: There is no excuse in rich, developed nations for the disparity we find between rich and poor. No excuse at all, except that the rich people like it that way. And they have the money to spend to ensure that the wealth gap, and the nutrition gap, don’t go away.

They can make it so, that is, unless those of us who are fortunate enough, though we’re not rich, to maintain a decent level of nutrition and, thus, of energy, say it can’t be that way any more.

We have only to look around us to see plentiful examples of peaceful objections to the way things are. In the name of humanity, we must.

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