The World Health Organization states that there are over 450 million people worldwide who are underweight, all of whom are considered malnourished. At the same time, around 2 billion people are considered overweight or obese. This figure would have seemed ludicrous just fifty years ago, when hunger was the world’s most pressing nutritional problem. But now obesity is an epidemic, with millions dying every year due to the effects of it.
Barry Popkin, the W. R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health is doing something about it. Popkin, in collaboration with international public health leaders, is actively implementing measures aimed at reducing the consumption of ultra-processed and unhealthy foods. These initiatives include the introduction of taxation, comprehensive bans on the marketing of unhealthy food products, the prominent display of warning labels on such items, and the promotion of healthy dietary options, particularly within educational institutions. Notably, these endeavors are currently in progress across various countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, yielding tangible results that signify a global commitment to address and mitigate the health challenges associated with dietary patterns.
Popkin has committed his life to nutrition and public health research around the world. By the 1990’s, the evidence was clear: people were eating junk food and drinking Coke (and every other sugar-sweetened beverage) and it was killing them. Most troubling, as the food systems in low- and middle-income countries changed, people were getting fatter and sicker faster than they were in the richer countries.
Seen in this light, “blaming” the obese for being overweight is no different than blaming a child for being malnourished. Instead, Popkin established the UNC Interdisciplinary Obesity Center, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Ultimately, Popkin contends that widespread obesity is less a result of poor individual dietary choices than about a hi-tech, interconnected world in which governments and multinational corporations have extraordinary power to shape our everyday lives and environments.
Popkin and his team of researchers have long worked behind the scenes fighting against the weaponized marketing of ultra-processed food and drink products that encourage the excessive consumption of energy, sugars, fats, saturated fats, trans fats, and sodium. These are the culprits promoting unhealthy weight gain and diet-related non communicable diseases (NCDs) particularly during early stages of life.
Popkin says sugar-sweetened beverages are to blame for much of it. “You are what you drink,” he says. In 1960, the average American consumed 100 to 200 calories a day in beverages. Today, the figure is 500 calories.
Marketing to children and teenagers presents a significant concern in today’s society, says Popkin. The promotion of certain foods on social media platforms and other marketing channels has been linked to the increasing prevalence of obesity among this demographic. On a recent panel discussion at Harvard University, one of Barry Popkin’s colleagues, a family physician, shared a distressing anecdote from his clinical practice. He recounted an encounter with an 8-year-old girl who weighed 200 pounds. What was particularly troubling about this case was the girl’s insistence that her mother purchased food products branded after a popular children’s television show, iCarly, underscoring the power of marketing in shaping the preferences and choices of young consumers.
Even so, Popkin doesn’t blame fast foods alone. “Eating fast foods is just one behavior that results from those poor eating habits,” he says. “Just because children who eat more fast food are the most likely to become obese does not prove that calories from fast foods bear the brunt of the blame.”
In his book The World Is Fat, Popkin’s message is clear: obesity is a global health crisis fueled by changes in diet, lifestyle, and the influence of the food industry. The book serves as a clarion call to address the complex factors contributing to obesity and to work towards a healthier and more sustainable global food system.
At nearly 80 years old, Barry still enjoys riding his bike to his office in downtown Chapel Hill and communicating with a wide, international network of leaders who are working hard to save lives through the obesity epidemic.
Says Michael Bloomberg, Founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies, WHO Global Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases and Injuries, and three-term Mayor of New York City:
“Barry Popkin has been a vital partner to Bloomberg Philanthropies in our work to improve public health in countries across the world. His research on food and nutrition—spanning more than 30 years—continues to shape our understanding of obesity, driving national policies and international partnerships to encourage healthy eating. As a tireless advocate and a leading scholar, Barry has helped to save and improve the lives of millions of people.” — from the 2019 book produced for Dr. Popkin’s 75th birthday
Popkin and his partner Cay Stratton visiting Reverend Tutu.Barbara Rimer, Dean Emerita of Gillings School of Public Health agrees:
“Barry Popkin’s work on the use of policies to change consumption is truly groundbreaking. He is not afraid to say what he thinks. Many aspire to make the world healthier, but Barry Popkin is achieving that aspiration.”
What can we do to help him and ourselves? This year, try to eat more real food and cut back on the highly processed foods, including fast food. And push at the local and state and national level for more support for fruits, veggie, beans, and other healthy and sustainable food.
For more information: https://www.nutrans.org
Laurie Paolicelli is executive director for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, a position she has held since 2005. Laurie has worked in tourism and marketing for twenty-five years, having served in leadership roles in Houston and California convention and visitor bureaus. She is a native of the Twin Ports of Duluth, MN/Superior Wisconsin. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Communications from the University Wisconsin-Superior and graduate certification in Technology In Marketing from the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.