One in 10 of the world’s 7.5 billion inhabitants is obese. At the same time, the number of people who are starving or malnourished is on the rise.
That finding comes from a comprehensive new report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. And it begs the question: How can these two seemingly contradictory outcomes be happening at the same time?
Nutritionists and public health experts say both issues can be traced to our diet.
Globally, more processed, caloric foods are available to more people than at any other point in history. Nowhere is the problem of cheap, unhealthy, omnipresent food more apparent than in the US, which in recent years has seen the largest percentage increase in its obesity rate than any other country, according to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“We live in a society where making healthy choices and being at a healthy weight, it’s not defaulted toward that,” Andy Bellatti, a registered dietitian and the cofounder of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, told Business Insider. “Unhealthy foods are cheaper and they’re everywhere; if you go to any store, you can buy a candy bar at the checkout but not a piece of fruit.”
This chronic lack of healthy food is creating what the New York Times recently called “a new type of malnutrition … in which a growing number of people are both overweight and undernourished.”
It can sound counterintuitive, but the authors of the FAO report say it isn’t.
“Particularly in high- and upper-middle income countries, food insecurity and obesity often co-exist — even in the same household. When resources for food become scarce, and people’s means to access nutritious food diminish, they often rely on less-healthy, more energy-dense food choices that can lead to overweight and obesity.”
For the thousands of people worldwide struggling with their weight, this can make losing weight and keeping it off nearly impossible. Still, there are solutions, Bellatti said.
The first step to sustainable weight loss is being emotionally ready, he said. “You need to be in a mental state where you want to do it. Anytime you force somebody, if they don’t care and they’re not motivated it’s not going to happen.”
Once that component is addressed, Bellatti advised setting up a long-term weight loss plan that allows you to make slow and steady progress toward your goals.
“You’ve got to give yourself two, three, even four years of consistent behavioural changes,” to lose weight and keep it off, Bellatti said. “That is hard work. You’re building new habits. And that takes time.”
That means instead of aiming to drop three sizes in a few weeks by doing a trendy cleanse, you should start incorporating small tweaks into your daily routine, such as eating more leafy vegetables, avoiding refined carbohydrates like white bread, and ensuring you’re getting enough sleep and drinking enough water.
It’s important to keep in mind too that obesity is a complex issue that is influenced by things outside of our control, like genetics. But if you’re looking to lose weight via behavioural change, experts recommend focusing on long-term, sustainable new habits.
“I’d say nine times out of 10 the people who change slowly and do manageable goals are the people who three years out still have success,” Bellatti said.
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