Why obesity is no longer a rich world problem

Obesity rates triple in developing countries. A report by the Overseas Development Institute has found that one in three adults globally is obese.

Around a third of the world’s adults are obese, and since 1980 the number of obese people in developing countries has more than tripled, from 250m to 904m, according to a report by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). The implication of this is clear: obesity is not only a public health problem for rich countries.

Over the past thirty years, wealthier individuals in low-income countries have been eating more, leading more sedentary lifestyles, and consuming a diet richer in meat, fat and sugar than ever before.  The proportion of overweight and obese people in North Africa, the Middle East and Latin America is now about the same as in Europe and North America. This places hundreds of thousands of people in these regions at heightened risk of heart disease and diabetes, many of whom will not have access to adequate medical care and advice. According to the World Health Organisation, for instance, 80 per cent of diabetes deaths occur in low to middle income countries, and by 2030 diabetes is projected to be the seventh leading cause of death worldwide.

Meanwhile, the World Food Programme estimates that 784m go hungry, and the ODI reports that a third of infants worldwide are stunted due to malnutrition. Just as obesity isn't a rich world problem, nor is hunger confined to low-income countries: according to Oxfam, around half a million people in the UK are dependent on food banks. There is more than enough food being produced to feed everyone sufficiently (in 2009 the equivalent of 2830 calories per person per day, according to ODI) – the problem is how food is being distributed and consumed. Obesity and hunger are interlinked: the more meat people consume, the harder it is to feed an expanding population.

The ODI suggests the time has come for stronger policymaking to educate people on nutrition, and influence their food choices. More needs to be done too, to tackle hunger: by combating poverty and improving food supply chains. Government interference in personal choices is never popular, particularly not when it comes to our dinner plates – but it’s hard to see what else can prevent an unprecedented public health crisis.

 

People in low to middle income countries are eating more fat, meat and sugar than ever before. Photo: Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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