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Obesity: Part of a Global Syndemic?

A group of obesity experts was recently tasked with writing a report to address the obesity epidemic. Instead, the authors produced a 56-page document emphasizing the interconnectedness of obesity with undernutrition and global climate change. The commission argues that these three epidemics occur in parallel, interact with each other to produce complex symptoms, and are driven by similar underlying societal factors. They describe these three conditions as Syndemic, and they can be simultaneously addressed. In fact, it may be impossible to tackle one facet of the Syndemic without inadvertently exacerbating another.

Luckily, this also means that certain solutions should produce “win-wins,” or even “win-win-wins.” “Linking obesity with undernutrition and climate change into a single Global Syndemic framework focuses attention on the scale and urgency of addressing these combined challenges and emphasizes the need for common solutions,” the authors write.

The commission argues that overconsumption, marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages, and political inertia are the primary drivers of the Syndemic. They play out within the systems of food and agriculture, transportation, urban design, and land use. 

The authors offer nine broad recommendations, which encompass over 20 actions, to address the Syndemic. We thought these were the most interesting:

  • National governments should shift subsidies given to oil companies and single-crop agricultural firms to promote sustainable energy, transportation, and healthy food systems.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) should create a Framework Convention on Food Systems and exclude the “Big Food” lobby from the policy development process.
  • UN members should articulate a “right to wellbeing,” which would necessitate regulation of unhealthy food advertising and promotion, ensuring access to minimum essential food that is nutritionally adequate and safe, the creation of safe green spaces, upholding cultural rights that promote healthy lifestyles, and provide clean drinking water.

Will policymakers pay more attention given that these solutions address three epidemics rather than just one? In any event, the new framework should get leaders thinking about a more systemic approach to major problems like obesity, undernutrition, and climate change. To be sure, there’s no time to put certain problems “on hold” while we solve others – we need to be making progress on these global crises simultaneously.

By Emma Ryan

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