Barry Popkin: Why the World Is Fat

6 facts that might surprise you about obesity and food (plus 1 you know).


Why in the heck did the world's chief food problem shift from malnutrition to obesity? That's the question Barry Popkin, director of the University of North Carolina's Inter-Disciplinary Obesity Center, explores in his new book, The World Is Fat. From the book and a conversation with Popkin, we've extracted seven tidbits you might not have known about obesity, nutrition, and what we put in our mouths.

  • Americans aren't the only ones getting fatter. Yes, we are the poster children for obesity, but the rest of the world isn't far behind. Popkin writes that half the population is overweight or obese in Russia and Eastern Europe, much of Latin America and South America, the Middle East, and Australia. He blames it on a complex cocktail of forces, from globalization to technology to the way we now eat—that is, anytime and anywhere. (Traditional diets in most societies promote health, but those traditional diets have gone the way of the dodo bird.)
    • The average American gets 400 calories a day from beverages. Looking for one single way to drop weight? Popkin suggests cutting out caloric drinks, such as nondiet colas, flavored waters, fruit juices, lattes, iced tea with tons of added sugar, and energy drinks. Research suggests that our bodies do not get the same satiety response from liquid calories as from those taken in solid form. In other words, you can drink that cola, but it's unlikely to fill you up enough to make you eat less at your next meal.
      • The U.S. pretty much stands alone in its sugar recommendations. The World Health Organization recommends that added sugars account for no more than 10 percent of a healthy diet. So do France, Spain, China, and other countries, says Popkin. The official U.S. dietary guidelines don't offer a strict number, but the American Dietetic Association endorses a 25 percent upper limit. Note: There's no official go-ahead to get a quarter of your daily calories from the sweet stuff.
        • Nutritional guidelines can be extremely confusing. Wouldn't it be nice if there were one place to go for simple guidelines on making healthier food choices? It's hard now; as Popkin writes, the American Diabetes Association is focused on sugar...but doesn't take total calories into account when endorsing products. The American Heart Association focuses on fat, also to the exclusion of calories, he says. And nuts and seeds may not be recommended by some groups because they're high in calories, even though they have other nutritional benefits. Some good news: Grocery stores are developing their own nutrition rating systems for products they sell, but Popkin is working with others to create a universal system with clearly defined criteria.
          • Some food companies are doing good. It's easy to criticize food companies and bash restaurants for big portions and high-calorie products, but remember: Their ultimate goal is to make money. If the competition's 1,100-calorie burger attracts hordes of customers, it's hard to try to pitch yogurt parfaits as an alternative. But Popkin highlights a few companies—Danone (the French parent company of Dannon), Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola, T.G.I. Friday's, and General Mills, among others—for their positive efforts, such as quietly cutting sugar and calories in certain products, offering portion-controlled entrees for less money, and instituting internal standards for calorie and fat content.
            • You're not getting thinner; clothes are getting bigger. I like buying clothes at Banana Republic and J. Crew because the number on the size label always seems to be smaller than it is elsewhere. Not a surprise, says Popkin; manufacturers discovered that by making what used to be a size 8 a 6 instead, something he believes has helped create complacency about what a normal body weight or size is. (He says close to half of people who are obese do not think it's a problem.)
              • At the end of the day, it's total calories that matter. If you put less in your mouth and exercise more, you can buck the trend. While hashing out what policies are best to curb obesity (Popkin, for his part, favors taxes on such things as sugary beverages or full-fat milk), we can all take responsibility for our own health by getting regular exercise (and making sure our kids do, too), and eating the way most nutrition experts recommend. That is, favor fruits and veggies, cut out fried and processed foods, opt for whole-grain breads and cereals, and choose lean sources of protein.