Which is worse: starvation or obesity? And what if these problems happen in the same household? As impossible as it seems, there’s strong evidence that in poor households, there’s a co-existence of hunger and obesity. Nikki Putnam Badding, a registered dietician nutritionist with Alltech, discussed the hunger paradox and what farmers can do help at the Alltech One Ideas Conference.
“In reality, hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin. There is an astronomical proportion of people in the world who do not have consistent access to nutrient-dense foods. When we think of the hungry, it seems obvious, they don't have enough food. But this is also the case for many people who suffer from obesity,” she says.
Obesity is a form of malnutrition, and malnutrition has one root cause: poverty.
Food insecurity means families may make poor food decisions—for example, a mother might opt to feed her child a drive-through calorie bomb breakfast sandwich instead of oatmeal, because she believes the fast food option will help her child feel full longer. Consumers may also opt to eat more than they need when they have access to food because they’re not sure when they’ll eat next. All of these choices can lead to weight gain and obesity.
Obesity used to be thought of as just a disease of excess people who were overindulgent. They had too much money, too much access to food. And now what we're seeing more often than not, that the obese population is huge in impoverished areas, because they too have insufficient access to food,” she says. “That doesn't mean there's no food available, it means there's lack of access to nutritious food.”
Bottom line: Obesity can be an adaptive response to episodic food insufficiency. And when diets are not consistently adequate, physiological changes mat occur to help the body conserve energy. The body may compensate for periodic food shortages by becoming more efficient at storing more calories as fat.
In the short term, food insecurity can lead to impaired brain development, lower IQ, a weakened immune system and brain and spinal birth defects. In the long term, it can lead to joint problems, mental retardation, blindness, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, smaller stature, heart disease, stroke and even premature death.
So what can you do? Badding offers these steps:
1. Give of your time and your money.
“There's are some really cool organizationsn called Kiva and Heifer. And both of these organizations offer micro loans to farmers in every country across the world. And they help these farmers start a backyard farm or unity garden, or maybe raise six chickens,” Badding says. “They not only help that family be able to provide some food for their family, they require that you have to barter and share with other people in your village, in your town or on your streets. So they're helping to decrease food insecurity across the world by helping people share.”
Other organizations that help feed our population include local food banks, backpack programs like FeedingAmerica.org and Meals on Wheels.
2. Be an advocate.
For example, you can support breastfeeding mothers by supporting them when you see them feeding their children. If you employ staff, you can provide a comfort area for breastfeeding and pumping.
“The World Health Organization has said that the first six months of a child's life determines their health and the rest of their life. That really short window is determining their health. And they say the best way to determine the health outcomes are entire population is whether or not you're breastfed,” she says. “Now, of course, there's outlying factors for this. But this is the easiest way to decrease malnutrition developing countries.”
You can also use your voice for acting on legislative policies, both domestic and international food aid policies and speak to your school district to support healthy breakfasts and lunches for impoverished families.
As farmers and producers, you can share your knowledge to help people feed their families.
“There are a lot of people around the world who could benefit from planting a small garden in their yard, maybe a fruit tree, raising a couple of chickens, even a community garden and in impoverished neighborhood could benefit from this,” Badding says. “Many of these folks who are suffering from that hunger, obesity paradox, or living in impoverished neighborhoods, called food deserts—areas where people not have access to fresh and healthy foods.”
Badding’s final message: Keep farming. “I want to thank you, those of you who are farming, you are incredible,” she says. “That's a huge piece of this puzzle. And together, let's mitigate food insecurity and in turn, hunger and obesity.”