As noted last week, a report by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington revealed that while the world population has gained more than a decade of life expectancy since 1980, healthy life expectancy gains have not been as dramatic. And when looking at health span (as opposed to life span) among the world’s wealthier regions, North America has the worst healthy life expectancy at birth for both men and women.
We are living longer, but living with the consequences of more years stricken with illness and disability. If we are to change this health expectancy trend, we must start at a major source of the problem. According to a recent report by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems Nutrition, diet and nutrition are now the biggest risk factors for people’s health across the globe.
During the last century, a major risk factor, especially in developing countries, was under-nutrition. And, while fewer people are suffering and dying from insufficient food today, globalization and an increasingly commercialized processed food supply has moved us in a troubling new direction. While a shift in diet away from harvested fruits and vegetables toward more processed foods is not killing us, the spread of junk food around the globe clearly appears to be making us sick and overweight.
The planet is seeing a rapid rise in rates of weight problems and obesity. If current trends continue, we may have as many as 3.28 billion overweight and obese people globally by 2030 (up from 1.33 billion in 2005), the vast majority of them in low-and middle-income countries. According to the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems Nutrition, today the sale of processed foods is growing the fastest in developing countries.
According to the World Obesity Federation, in 2013, 14.2 percent of the children around the globe were overweight or obese, up from 12.8 percent in 2000. The federation estimates that by 2025, 15.8 percent of the world’s children will be obese. An estimated 42 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese last year, an increase of about 11 million over the past 15 years. Assuming no shift in consumption comes along to effectively change current trends, that translates to roughly 268 million children aged 5-17 years who could be overweight in 2025, 91 million of which will be obese. The report also estimates an annual loss of 10 percent of global Gross Domestic Product from diet-related illnesses. While there is international agreement at the United Nations level to halt the rising prevalence of obesity and diabetes across the globe, policies to date have been largely ineffective.
“Wake up, world!” says Lawrence Haddad, an author on the report and formerly a senior fellow with the International Food Policy Research Institute.
The report blames these trends on changing food environments where healthy foods are becoming increasingly expensive the world over, while unhealthy food is becoming cheaper and easier to buy. “The price of fruits and vegetables is going up and up,” Haddad points out in a recent interview on NPR. “The price of processed foods is going down and down.”
If we are to reverse this trend, we obviously must make it much easier for people to buy healthy food. As recommended in the report, countries need to invest more money on the development of crops such as beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas (which have high amounts of fiber and protein, providing important vitamins and minerals), as well as on vegetables and fruits. At present, most funding goes toward growing stapes such as rice, wheat and corn.
Meanwhile, back on the home front, the results are in from the one of the largest and broadest surveys of health in the United States conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While many of the findings were encouraging, any gains we may have seen were overshadowed by rising rates of obesity and diabetes. The rate of obesity in the United States continues its steady and upward march, representing a continuation of a trend that has been going on since at least 1997. In 2015, 30.4 percent of Americans 20 and older said they were obese.
Amid such depressing news there does appear to be at least a glimmer of hope within college campus dining halls. According to a recent survey released by peta2, the youth division of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, meat- and dairy-free menu items are becoming one of the big sellers on college cafeteria menus. The organization surveyed nearly 1,500 four-year colleges and universities in the United States and found that 62 percent of schools serve vegan menu items on a daily basis, up from 28 percent in 2014. In addition, according to research by VeganGreen, millennials are three times more likely to be vegetarian than Gen Xers and 12 times more likely than baby boomers. It appears that many of these students are using their on-campus food purchases as a statement that they support the health benefits of vegan food and its lower impact on the environment.
Such behavior has yet to make a world of difference to health life expectancy, but it’s a start.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.