Fat is an appendage of democracy, exported by the West wherever it goes. World leaders should make this clear when invading hostile nations: “We’re coming to replace your weapons of mass destruction with our own: snacks, fries and hamburgers”. This unhealthy diet is most effective if served the western democratic way: with hours of brainless television, slumped on the sofa nibbling junk.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has coined an apt neologism – ‘globesity’ – for the globalisation of fat and its related problems. The statistics reveal the paradox of the new millennium: it’s the poor classes of rich countries and the rich of poor countries who are getting fatter. In India, the home of about half the world’s sufferers of malnutrition, over 50% of women between 20 and 69 years old are overweight. The same applies to 20% of the adult Chinese population. The obesity rate among Brazilian children has shot up by over 200% in a single generation, four times the rate in the US. Even less flattering statistics for Egypt: an obesity increase of 400% in the last 18 years.
The prosperous citizens of prosperous nations have become more sensitive to the harmful effects of hypercalorific diets (after years of colourings, additives, unsaturated fats), but in developing countries fast food culture is seen as a passport to progress. Well-off youngsters eager to belong to the international jet set are rushing into the coloured rooms of multinational eateries to stuff themselves. The phenomenon of obesity is also dramatically increasing in those eastern European countries which have recently joined the EU or are in the process of doing so.
Obesity is first and foremost a medical issue. It is the primary cause of death in the US for at least 300,000 people per year, bearing out the theory outlined above, since obesity is twice as common among ethnic minorities (affecting one out of two African-Americans and one out of three Hispanic Americans) compared to the white protestant elite who have better food and education and more free time to look after themselves. Similar proportions emerge in Italy, comparing north and south: Campania is the region with the highest number of obese children (36%) while the lowest rate occurs in Valle d’Aosta (14.3%).
But obesity is also a cultural issue. The effect of fashions from across the Atlantic is to stamp out deep-rooted traditions and regional differences, overturn consumer habits and standardise taste (sometimes with irrevocable consequences). Once again, children are most at risk since they are easier to manipulate through specific and deceptive advertising, and they will deal with the consequences for the rest of their lives.
About a month ago French Education Minister Xavier Darcos issued a circular ordering all snack dispensers to be removed from schools and replaced with fresh fruit and natural drinks vendors, while Rio de Janiero’s 1,035 state schools have already outlawed junk food and launched a dietary programme based on the healthier, traditional beans and vegetables. In Italy, especially through Slow Food, taste education has been ongoing in schools for some years, with courses for teachers and students, school vegetable gardens and tasting “games” to help children discover a sensory universe obscured by the synthetic flavours of standardised products.
So before you admire a chubby child, remember: big is not necessarily beautiful and almost never healthy.
Alessandro Monchiero, a journalist, works for the Slow Food Editore publishing company
Adapted by Ailsa Wood