Exporting a Western Diet: Obesity Goes Global

Obesity, diabetes rates rising in other countries

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This post is part of ongoing coverage of Cleveland Clinic’s 2013 Medical Innovation Summit: Finding Balance through Innovation. Obesity, Diabetes & the Metabolic Crisis.

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The United States may lead the world in rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes, but the rest of the world is catching up quickly, said a panel of global public health experts at Cleveland Clinic’s Medical Innovation Summit today.

One of the top reasons is an increase in wealth among developing nations, said William Ruschhaupt, MD, Chair of Global Patient Services for Cleveland Clinic.

“With increased wealth, you tend to see a change toward a more Western diet and a decrease in physical activity,” Dr. Ruschhaupt said at the session entitled, “A Global Picture of Health.”

The Mexican example

In Mexico, for instance, the population is increasingly moving toward urban centers where convenience foods abound, according to Simon Barquera, MD, PhD, president of the Nutrition Board of Professors at the Mexican School of Public Health.

“We have pockets of very poor populations where undernutrition and food insecurity are the main problem,” said Dr. Barquera. “You may have a family with undernutrition in the kids but obesity in the parents, which makes it very hard to address this problem.”

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Between 1988 and 1999, Mexico went from being a population that was largely at a normal weight to now one that is 70 percent obese or overweight.

Dr. Barquera attributed the change in part to a 37 percent increase in soda consumption in that time period and a decrease in intake of fruits and vegetables. Even traditional Mexican ingredients like chicken, beans and corn are being prepared with more fat and sodium than in the past, he said.

In Mexico, government and public health officials are taking action by regulating the dietary quality of foods in schools, creating new food labeling guidelines and encouraging water as an alternative to soda.

‘Export’ of obesity

“While 237 years ago, we wanted to export democracy, now we may be exporting obesity,” said David Beier, a longtime healthcare executive who is now managing director of Bay City Capital.

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Predicting how countries will address this healthcare epidemic is tied closely to access to affordable healthcare, he said, which is a challenge across the world just as it is here.

“The ability to deliver healthcare is sine qua non to the stability of a government,” he said.

Challenging the global food industry

Mr. Beier challenged global food manufacturers to play a larger role in addressing the problems of obesity and type 2 diabetes worldwide. Cleveland Clinic has engaged in that dialogue with food vendors within its healthcare locations, said Dr. Ruschhaupt, and he is hopeful about the impact market forces are having on the food industry.

“You have to challenge them, but it won’t happen overnight. We started a dialogue and that was the beginning of change,” he said. “Some food manufacturers have reached the conclusion that the market is headed into the realm of healthier foods, and they’re starting to head in that direction.”