Did you know that, across the world, more people are now obese than underweight? These obese are also malnourished, eating food high on calories and low on nutrients. When most of us think of malnourished people, the image we conjure is usually not of someone who is obese. But that is precisely the problem! The image of malnourishment today differs markedly from media images of skinny-legged, sunk-eyed, gaunt-faced ‘barely alive’ people scavenging for food. Today, large segments of the malnourished population are both overweight and undernourished. Some estimate that about one-third of the world’s population is now obese, with obesity rates doubling in at least 70 countries over the last five decades (including the US, India, and large swaths of South America, Middle East, Asia and Africa). These obese, yet undernourished, folks suffer from a host of ailments, including high blood pressure, diabetes, clogged arteries, and heart problems, all of which contribute to premature deaths.
How did we get here? Just 100 years ago, we were concerned whether there will be enough food to feed the whole population, and now we are worried about people eating too much! The harsh truth is that growing numbers of people around the world are consuming ever increasing quantities of calorie-rich, nutrient-deficient, l a b o r a t o r y - e n g i n e e r e d , processed foods. According to Michael Moss’ best-selling book Salt, Sugar, and Fat, food companies from Kellogg’s to KFC scientifically manipulate foods to induce the cravings to eat.
Whether it is burger, pizza, or fries or it is boxed cereal, ketchup, or supermarket bread, our food is loaded with salt, sugar, and fats to develop formulations that trigger food highs. It is then sold in attractive packaging, accompanied with well-designed marketing campaigns to appeal to our most innate biological desires without much regard for consumer health. And then there is the political lobbying and corporate shenanigans, where companies put pressure and dangle contributions to elected officials and career bureaucrats to ensure an undisturbed market for junk food.

In the US (and other developed countries), unhealthy food is sold all over the place, in grocery aisles and fast food joints. Developing countries, like India, Brazil, and Ghana, are new to such foods, but perhaps even more vulnerable to the unhealthy food problem. In India, fast food sales more than doubled since 2010, and the country is now home to more than 1100 Domino’s Pizza outlets. Mexico, plagued by drug wars and chronic rural poverty, is now considered the most obese nation in the Americas as processed food and sugary drinks replace fresh vegetables and fruits in the diet. Some of the world’s most obese countries (think Palau, Navru, and Tonga) are in the Pacific, where they have whole-heartedly embraced American-style food habits. Middle-eastern countries like Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar are also not far behind on obesity rankings, as people there have jettisoned their traditional healthy diets for junk food over the span of just one generation.
The New York Times recently reported that Domino’s is experimenting with ‘Desert Pizza’ in India, which is topped with cookies, brownies, cheesecake, coconut nougats, and fudge sauce. Of course, it will also have ample quantities of white flour, sugar, salt, fats, and preservatives to make sure the pizza ‘tastes’ fresh across the hundreds of Domino’s locations in the country. Given the notoriously sweet tooth Indians are known to have, I suspect the ‘desert pizza’ will be a ‘hit’ product in the country. It may be especially popular with the kids, for who it will replace the traditional, muchhealthier, desert options. The ‘silver lining’ here is that if Indians continue to embrace junk food the way they have so far, from breakfast cereals to burger snacks to pizza dinners, they may even help take India to the ranks of the most obese countries in the world. India has so long been the favoured face of global hunger and starvation that news about becoming the face of global obesity may actually be welcomed, especially by those who love for India to mimic the US and follow western trends. So, next time you make junk food a part of your family’s diet, perhaps pause and think about the personal, national, and global repercussions of the choice you are making.