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We Must Break the Vicious Cycle of Obesity, Malnutrition and Poverty

While it is paradoxical that poverty and obesity exist hand in hand, so too is the reality that the obese poor tend to be under- or mal-nourished. How can this be?
This is because the poor eat the poorest food.

Perhaps part of our problem is that when we see those trapped in the cycle of poverty, we look and say “Oh, she’s fat, she must have enough to eat.” This is not just a huge misunderstanding of the reality which faces the majority of our people every day, it is a malicious misrepresentation.

Poorly nourished infants have been found to be predisposed to obesity in later life. This occurs by interference with the genetic programming of the body, mainly in utero. If a mother does not receive adequate nutrition, the lot of her baby can become forever compromised. This is how the tragedy of poverty is perpetuated, inter-generationally. This occurs directly through malnutrition, as well as through other rather more sinister mechanisms.

One of the first consequences is that industrially grown food is, from the outset lower in minerals, vitamins and other important nutrients like flavinoids, than food grown in rich, healthy soils. The nutrient value of our food has dropped consistently over the past half-century.

Secondly, most industrial foods carry residual levels of these chemicals and pesticides, many which are known endocrine disruptors. Endocrine or hormone disruptors are closely associated with serious negative health impacts, including obesity, diabetes and hypertension. This chemical exposure is known as our body burden.

So here we effectively have a double whammy. The poor eat food which predisposes them to poor health, on top of another, existing predisposition, genetically caused by malnutrition in the uterus or as infants.

Consequently, the cheapest staple foods lack all but the most basic nutritional requirements. Most food contains only refined carbohydrates and chemically stripped oils. The vetkoek diet. So the poor consume white flour, maize meal, polished rice, highly processed vegetable oils, with no real nutritional value. This empty food does no more than fill the stomach – it has calories but no nutrients, a recipe for obesity.

If protein is consumed it is usually cheap, processed soya, which is not readily digested and which contains several anti-nutrients that in turn block absorption of important minerals like iron, calcium and zinc. If meat is consumed it too is cheap and nasty – polony, battery chicken and feedlot livestock with its high levels of bad omega 3 fats, increasing hypertension risks.

To compound these corporeal insults, high levels of toxic preservatives like nitrates and nitrites, both known carcinogens, or preservatives like sulphur dioxide – linked to respiratory problems are added to industrial foods. Taste enhancers are added to dilute the blandness; chemicals like monosodium glutamate, aspartame and other artificial flavourants and colourants each add insult to injury. And don’t forget the sugar, which many want to classify as a toxin.

By decentralising our food supply and encouraging the growth of market gardens, of communal food gardens, of vegetable plots on schools, in backyards, along the verges of our suburbs, in every available space in our cities, we can easily break this cycle. Why on earth do we plant decorative plants in the midst of such need when we can plant food? Why plant decorative trees when we can plant fruit trees? What is to stop our huge numbers of unemployed, malnourished citizens from being assisted to grow their own food? Huge opportunities exist to break this self-perpetuating scourge which is ruining the life of our people.

Another interesting trigger for obesity is stress. Stress is closely related to poverty in that high stress levels are caused directly through overcrowding, noise, crime and of course financial stress.

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