The expanding obesity crisis in emerging nations

Walmir Coutinho Hero

World Obesity Federation president Dr. Walmir Coutinho sees his native Brazil as an example of the dietary challenges that come with increasing prosperity.

Endocrinologist Walmir Coutinho is a lifelong champion in the fight against obesity. The 55-year-old Brazilian physician and current president of the World Obesity Federation has dedicated his entire career to educating people about the risks of obesity and the role that a sedentary lifestyle and easy access to prepared foods plays in the spreading epidemic, especially in the developing world. In fact, among the one-third of the global population that is now overweight, 62 percent live in developing countries, reported The Lancet in a study published in May 2014.

Walmir Coutinho
Walmir Coutinho

The ways in which you try to eradicate poverty from the poorest parts of the population gives these same people access to and more likelihood to eat foods that are richer in calories because they are the cheapest.”
—Walmir Coutinho

Coutinho is particularly concerned with the hold obesity has taken on Latin America, and says if Brazil doesn’t change its ways, it could become “the most obese nation in the world” in the next 15 years. Although the Brazilian obesity rate has recently stabilized based on data from a 2014 study, says Coutinho, 51 percent of the population is still overweight, including one-third of children ages 5 to 9, according to the Brazilian Ministry of Health. In a major initiative, the ministry released new food guidelines in October 2014 that it hopes will help people eat more nutritious foods and regulate their weight better, urging Brazilians to replace heavily processed foods with raw and minimally processed foods as the basis of their diets.

Coutinho talked recently with FutureFood 2050 about the challenge of expanding prosperity in emerging nations without expanding waistlines as well.

FutureFood 2050: What is the big difference between what’s going on with obesity in Latin America and in other regions of the world?

Coutinho: They are living different moments in time. We are living in a time where obesity has grown even more here in Latin America than it has in Europe and the United States. These environmental changes that favor obesity already happened in the United States and Europe decades ago. For example, in the last 20 years, Brazil practically doubled the percentage of families that have cars, TVs and fridges. These are comfort items related to obesity.

Another factor that contributes to this problem is the phenomenon called nutritional transition phenomenon. The ways in which you try to eradicate poverty from the poorest parts of the population gives these same people access to and more likelihood to eat foods that are richer in calories because they are the cheapest. It’s much cheaper for people to leave the supermarket with their shopping carts full of salty snacks and cookies than greens, vegetables and fruits.

FutureFood 2050: How complex is this problem?

Coutinho: The government of the UK commissioned a group of specialists to prepare a report with recommendations of what would need to be done there to control the epidemic of obesity. In the conclusion of the report, the specialists made a comparison: They said that the solution for the problem of obesity is so complex that it can only be compared to the solution to the problem of global warming. The path to the solution of this problem needs to involve transnational and multinational organizations; big companies; federal, state and municipal governments; and legislative and judicial powers. And each one of these entities that I mentioned has methods that could effectively contribute to the solution of the problem of obesity.

Aside from all of this, you have to motivate individuals. You have to try to offer these individuals alternatives for a healthier lifestyle that can in turn help them reach a healthier weight.

The prevalence of obesity is inversely proportional to how active a person is when walking and biking. In cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, for example, the urban design favors that people get around by walking or biking, leading to a lower prevalence of obesity.

And then there’s food. The cheapest foods are the ones that are the richest in calories. So you would have to think of, maybe, a way to put an extra higher tax on foods that cause obesity, like the way Mexico did with soda [in 2014]. But you would have to use this tax to subsidize healthier foods so that they aren’t so expensive and are more accessible to the population.

FutureFood 2050: How do you think the evolution of food science will impact obesity rates in developing countries?

Coutinho: I have a lot of hope that [food science] will decisively help with obesity. If you are able to offer to the population—the average consumer—better quality food, this could help reduce the rate of obesity.

One of the biggest problems … is that the human race has learned to consume a specific type of food with the objective of rewarding the central nervous system. Consuming highly palatable foods, which are rich in fat and sugar, can … activate this reward center.

FutureFood 2050: Have you seen any changes so far during your career?

Coutinho: We’ve seen some signs of change. Some countries have seen their obesity numbers stabilize. For instance, the United States has seen its numbers stabilize instead of increase. The same has happened more recently in Brazil when looking at numbers from a 2014 study. For the first time, obesity has stabilized and hasn’t increased from 2012 to 2013. It looks like we’re starting to reverse the tendency for growth.

Jill Langlois

Based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, freelance journalist Jill Langlois reports and writes for a wide range of media including The Associated Press, The New York Times, USA Today, Fortune and Reuters.

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