John Robbins wrote in his seminal book The Food Revolution that there are as many people on the planet currently suffering from obesity-related illnesses as there are those suffering from hunger-related illnesses. And, ironically, both have two critical factors in common: malnutrition and poverty.
While it may seem impossible that obesity sufferers are as nutrient deficient as individuals without enough food to eat, it's true. A 2007 study titled "Poverty, obesity, and malnutrition: an international perspective recognizing the paradox" found food insecurity's contradiction is that not only can it lead to the more common vision of the gravely malnourished sufferers of undernutrition, but also, overnutrition, which the researchers estimate that by 2015 will take over as the leading cause of death from noncommunicable diseases in low-income communities, surpassing the effects of undernutrition.
Starvation has long been the poster child for poverty and malnutrition. Literally. Sally Struthers brought the issues of malnourished African children to television sets throughout the 1980s, begging Americans to help relieve their suffering while the millions of couch potatoes watching the depressing commercials snacked their way into their own malnourished state.
Particularly in the U.S., a growing number of obese individuals (one-third of all adult Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and a rising rate of families struggling to find food parallel. According to Feeding America, in 2010 14.5 percent of American households were food insecure. Often, the two are affecting the same individuals (three of the top ten states with the highest obesity rates and highest poverty rates are the same: Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi). How can this be?
Overnutirition leads to the obvious diet-related illnesses like obesity, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes, but it's also a breeding ground as well for vitamin deficiency generated illnesses like chronic skin conditions, poor vision, gout, mental disorders, digestive disturbances and even certain types of cancer. What happens is this: When healthy foods are substituted with mere empty calories in fast/processed/frozen foods—often the only choice in low-income neighborhoods (and in many school systems)—the body stores much of the useless stuff (trans fats, processed sugars, refined grains and flours) in the body as fat until it can determine what—if anything—can be done with it. Hunger persists because the body has not filled its nutrition quota for the day. That's why you may have noticed that you can eat an entire bag of Doritos and still feel a voracious hunger—because your body actually received very few nutrients. That can certainly pack on the pounds.
But further compounding the issue are the number of chemicals (from pesticides applied to the crops to the additives, artificial flavors and preservatives added to the finished product), called endocrine disruptors, which have been shown to cause obesity and diabetes, among myriad other health issues. Making it difficult to lose weight, these chemicals throw off the body's hormonal systems that regulate insulin distribution and the body's ability to metabolize.
Inexpensive processed foods are nutritionally inferior to fresh, whole fruits, vegetables, grains and even organically-raised animal products. Diets lacking in these—whether other foods are present or not—inevitably lead to malnutrition and the slurry of health issues common with both starvation and obesity.
And what's more, experts suggest there is enough food on the planet right now to feed everyone healthy, nutritious food. But multinational corporate conglomerates that dominate the food industry, distribution and even health care, have made it increasingly more difficult to allocate food where its needed most, and make the perceived cheap, tasty, processed stuff more accessible than pure, fresh, whole foods.
If we are to combat the issues of malnutrition in our country and around the world, we can start by opting out of the corporate food system, growing our own, supporting local food manufacturers and sharing these resources. We can help to support educational and charitable organizations that bring healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables to the nation's sprawling "food deserts." And we can help to heal our soil—where many of the vital nutrients originate—by always choosing organic and non-gmo foods.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger