FAO's 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.

Information is key
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.



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 research.

Making food more nutritious
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.

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. (FAO/10107/J. VanAcker)


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.

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'.

FAO links:

What is Body Mass Index?
State of food insecurity 2000: Spectrum of malnutrition
FAO's Food and Nutrition Division
Focus Archive

External links:

World Health Organization publications on obesity