The Recession and Obesity – How One Can Feed The Other

By on 02/06/2014 | Updated on 03/06/2014
From cradle to grave - obesity in OECD countries has been increasing. Photo: iStock

Graham Scott explores the connections between poverty, obesity and recession.

The recession which started in 2007 has seen many predictable outcomes. One is that people are finding it harder to buy food. Ironically, at least on the surface, another outcome is an increase in obesity in the Western world. How do these go together and how can they be tackled?

A survey of 34 countries in the OECD area found that the number of families with children struggling to pay for food has risen from 15% in 2007 to hover around 21-22% since 2011. It’s not surprising that most of the ten countries at the top of that list are relatively less well off, like Turkey. Others, like Hungary and Greece, have seen a series of economic and social upheavals. Yet there, in the Top 10, is also the United States, showing that there are challenges for all governments.

Despite being a superpower, the United States sits in sixth place in that Top Ten, below Chile. Clearly national stature does not always translate into government policy to help individual families on the ground.

Yet the USA is also one of three countries in the OECD area – along with Mexico and New Zealand – where one in three of the adult population is obese. The rates of increase have slowed or stabilized there, as well as in many other countries like Italy and the United Kingdom, but the patterns remain far from encouraging.

Less Money Means More Weight

One reason for this increase over the last five or so years is being given as the recession itself. The OECD points out that the economic downturn is connected to rising obesity over that period in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Slovenia. All countries that have suffered social and financial upheaval.

In those countries expenditure on fruit and vegetables has fallen by up to 20%, with more emphasis on more filling, high-calorie food. Along with the increase in calorific intake has been a slowdown in physical activity since many in the more vulnerable groups have lost their employment.

This has created a vicious cycle where many, particularly those in lower socio-economic groups and with lower educational standards, have lost their jobs and then cut their intake of healthy food while also becoming more sedentary.

Worsening Outcomes

There are clear stresses for governments, not least in the worsening mortality outcomes for such groups and the increased cost of everything from medical emergencies to coping with obesity-related diseases. Currently total health expenditure is between 1% and 3% in most countries, although it’s 5% to 10% in the USA.

While countries from the USA to Japan have introduced programmes to counter obesity, these have usually been linked to financial incentives. In both the UK and the USA there has also been co-operation between government and private companies forming multi-stakeholder platforms, although it’s too early to accurately assess their effect.

Mexico Tackles The Problem In The Round

But perhaps the biggest programme has been undertaken by Mexico, which has one of the highest obesity problems in the world. The response by the Mexican government and its agencies has been multi-pronged.

A National Strategy for the Prevention and Control of Overweight, Obesity and Diabetes – a strategy that’s quite a mouthful in itself – was launched in the latter part of 2013. Crucially, this has three main pillars aimed at tackling the problem in the round, as it were.

The three pillars are: improved public health and surveillance; improved medical care for those with chronic diseases; and improved fiscal and regulatory measures. The Mexican authorities launched a media campaign to raise awareness of the problems while also working closer with the medical profession to improve take-up and compliance for those prescribed drugs to combat obesity-related conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes.

Aggressive Media

Like several other countries, including Hungary, France and Ireland, Mexico also levied a new 8% tax on high-energy foods and sugar-sweetened drinks. Naturally, entrenched industries opposed the moves but, again, the Mexican authorities used an aggressive media campaign to support their stance. This has been favourably received by Mexican citizens who have responded positively to their government’s assertive use of media.

While governments tackle obesity and its resulting problems, there is one element which is improving matters all by itself. As the recession fades in many countries, so too do the levels of obesity, or at least the rates of increase are slowing dramatically.

A better economy of itself seems to help with citizens’ weight and health problems. That’s something to bring at least some relief to beleaguered health services around the world.

About Graham Scott

Graham is an experienced editor and publisher and an award-winning writer. He has travelled extensively and is interested in world cultures.

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