priorities: First hunger, then obesity
While FAO recognizes the need to address growing
concerns about obesity, its higher priority remains
fighting hunger. "Obesity is not as big a problem as hunger
in developing countries," reminds Dr Prakash Shetty, Chief
of FAO's Nutrition Planning, Assessment and Evaluation
Service. "First, we need to make sure that people are eating
enough food and the right foods."
But along with other forms of malnutrition, obesity has
the potential to weaken or even undo a nation's development
gains by diminishing people's capacity to work and diverting
resources to health care. So while efforts continue against
hunger, obesity also demands attention.
For instance body
mass index (BMI), a calculation of a person's body
weight divided by his height squared, produces a score that
indicates where the persons falls on a scale from severely
underweight to severely obese. Unfortunately, data from
developing countries are limited. As a result, policy makers
don't have what they need to evaluate the threat of
increasing obesity and the rise of related chronic diseases.
And the misconception that obesity is a problem afflicting
only affluent countries may be holding back further
Luckily, part of the solution for both is better
information. "The same information we use to determine
levels of undernutrition can also tell us about
overnutrition, since the two conditions are problems at
either end of the same continuum," says Dr Shetty.
Making food more
It is also essential to ensure that the food
being produced is nutritious. Obesity is deceptive. Although
obese people may appear well fed, they often lack essential
nutrients, leading to poor health and disease. FAO wants to
build a better bridge between two fields of expertise that
don't always work together: the food production experts who
decide how to grow more food and the nutritionists who know
which foods people need for good health.
"We have to look beyond growing a single crop because it's
disease resistant and produces a high yield and start
choosing crops because they offer better nutrition," says
Barbara Burlingame, Senior Officer in FAO's Nutrition Impact
Assessment and Evaluation Group. This will take a change in
philosophy. "Instead of thinking about how much dry matter
is produced per hectare, we'd like to see calculations of
how much protein or beta-carotene is produced," she
suggests. This means convincing everyone from policy makers
to agronomists to extension workers to consider nutrition as
an essential part of agricultural planning.
A related initiative is combating micronutrient
deficiencies by breeding foods to be more nutritious. By
identifying foods that are naturally high in micronutrients
such as iron or vitamin A, scientists can use conventional
breeding techniques to introduce those traits into
super-nutritious hybrid foods. "People argue over the ills
or merits of bio-engineering rice to raise the beta-carotene
content, " says Burlingame, "but we should take advantage of
cultivars that are already naturally high in certain
vitamins and use them to enrich others." FAO is organizing a
workshop to encourage increased interest in this process,
referred to as bio-fortification.
Workers at the Camberéne
Horticultural Centre in Senegal examine a sweet
potato plant. Certain cultivars of this tubour are
an excellent source of beta-carotene.
Preventing the problem
from getting worse
The first step in addressing the growing problem of
obesity is to acknowledge its existence. "There was a
general tendency to believe that as economies grew, the
problems of nutrition would sort themselves out," says Dr.
Shetty. But it is the countries that are moving from
developing to developed that appear most at risk. "These
countries are achieving adequacy in food intake, but we have
to make sure they don't go in the other direction," says Dr
Shetty. Public education must aggressively promote good
nutrition and physical activity, and agriculture policy
should encourage the consumption of healthy foods.
As countries work to feed all their people, the message
must be 'eat healthy food, not just more food'.
is Body Mass Index?
State of food insecurity 2000: Spectrum
FAO's Food and
Health Organization publications