The Economics of Obesity: Exploring the Factors and Impact on Inequality

Title: Exploring the Link Between Obesity and Inequality: A Historical Perspective

Editor’s note:
Throughout history, economic patterns have repeated themselves, often leading to inequality. To make this complex topic more accessible, we present “Reading the Economy through World History,” a series that intertwines economics with familiar historical events and characters. In this edition, Professor Won-Kyung Cho, an esteemed economist, takes us on a journey to understand the connections between obesity and economic disparities.

Obesity: Understanding Its Causes
Obesity is typically defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. However, BMI fails to consider factors such as muscle mass, genetic predispositions, and individual variations. To comprehend the history of obesity, we examine three primary factors contributing to its prevalence.

Genetics: Unraveling the Origins of Obesity
Noted Swedish geneticist, Svante Pääbo, recipient of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, has shed light on the genetic roots of obesity. With the discovery of over 400 genes associated with obesity, Pääbo explains how our genetic makeup, including the influential “fat storage control gene” (FTO), can impact body fat accumulation. These genes can be traced back to our Neanderthal ancestors, who, due to intermittent food availability and the need to survive harsh conditions, developed a genetic predisposition for fat storage. The influence of these genes, however, varies from person to person, as shown by data from Harvard University Medical School, suggesting that genetics account for 25% to 70-80% of obesity cases. By 2030, it is projected that the global obese adult population will reach 1 billion individuals, double the number in 2010.

The Dining Environment: A Culinary Journey
Modern society’s food choices and consumption patterns contribute significantly to obesity. Fast food, high in calories but lacking adequate nutrition, has become easily accessible and popular among individuals. The history of sugar, derived from sugar cane and sugar beets, provides insight into our dietary habits. Sugar cane, initially cultivated in New Guinea, spread to Islam, Europe, and eventually Brazil. Sugar consumption evolved as a symbol of wealth and power in Europe during the Renaissance, leading to the establishment of large-scale sugar cane farms, particularly in the Caribbean. The fruits of this labor were primarily achieved through the use of black slaves, who were forced to work in harsh conditions on these plantations. The European demand for sugar contributed to the African slave trade, leaving lasting scars on the Caribbean islands. Sadly, this history of exploitation continues to impact our eating habits, as excessive sugar consumption contributes to obesity-related health issues.

Lack of Physical Activity: Sitting and Society
As our work environments become increasingly sedentary, modern individuals face a chronic lack of physical activity. The rise of desk jobs and decreased exercise exacerbates obesity, leading to a host of related health problems, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, and abdominal obesity.

The Implications of Obesity: Inequality and Global Health
As the world’s population grapples with obesity, it becomes crucial to address the underlying inequalities perpetuated by this epidemic. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) reported in 2011 that the number of obese individuals surpassed the number of hungry and malnourished individuals globally. This imbalance raises concerns about socioeconomic disparities and the consequences of unrestricted market forces. Obesity is a leading cause of cardiovascular diseases, such as arteriosclerosis, demonstrating the urgent need for preventive measures. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recommended taxing high-fat and junk foods as a means to combat obesity, and several countries have already taken steps towards implementing such measures.

Conclusion: Toward a Healthier Future
Understanding the interconnectedness between economics, history, and obesity allows us to address this pressing issue on a global scale. By acknowledging genetic predispositions, promoting healthier dining environments, and encouraging physical activity, we can strive for a more equal and healthier future.

The economics of barbarism and inequality read through obesity

Editor’s note

History repeats itself. Economics expressed in numbers has also been established over a long period. We try to explain difficult economics in an easy and fun way through familiar characters and events from world history. ‘Reading the Economy through World History’, narrated by Professor Won-Kyung Cho, a former economic official who is now the head of the Global Industry-Academic Cooperation Center at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) , comes to readers once every three weeks.

Obesity, diet failure. Getty Image Bank

If your body mass index (BMI), which is your weight (kg) divided by the square of your height (m), is 30 or more, you are usually called obese. BMI has the disadvantage of not reflecting muscle mass, genetic causes, and individual differences. We looked at the history of obesity in the world through three factors that cause obesity.

First of all, it’s genes. Who is the main character in history who provided the obesity genes in our bodies? Swedish geneticist Svante Pebo, winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, helped unlock the key. He discovered the process of human evolution by studying the connection between the genomes of ancient humans and modern humans. Scientists like him discovered more than 400 genes involved in obesity. A representative example is the fat storage control gene (FTO), which has a significant effect on increasing body fat. As Febo says, the origin of the obesity gene dates back to the Neanderthals 350,000 years ago. They got food intermittently by hunting and hunting. In order to survive the cold, you had to store fat in your body and survive. More than 98% of Homo sapiens genes and less than 2% of Neanderthal genes combine to form the DNA of modern humans. Neanderthal genes show that our human body is genetically designed to be unfavorable for absorbing sugar. The influence of genes varies from person to person. Data from Harvard University Medical School shows that as little as 25% and as much as 70-80% of obesity is caused by genes.

It is estimated that the world’s obese (adult) population will reach 1 billion in 2030. It is double the 500 million people in 2010. Getty Image Bank

The second is the issue of the dining environment. Modern people eat more calories than they need. The fast food available on the streets is high in calories but not good for health and nutrition. Sugar is a type of carbohydrate and is an important source of energy for the body. Eating too much sugar increases the risk of obesity by 1.39 times due to fat accumulation.

Let’s follow in the footsteps of sugar derived from sugar cane and sugar beets. Sugarcane, a plant that lives in tropical or subtropical climates, was first grown on the island of New Guinea. Afterwards, it was introduced to Islam and Europe via India through the Crusades. In order to continue to save sugar cane, which was destroying the soil, the cultivation area had to be moved to another location. The Portuguese moved sugarcane growing areas westwards as they pioneered the eastern sea route. In the 16th century, Portugal chose what is now Brazil as a place to grow sugar cane.

During the Renaissance, sugar was an effective medicine for treating colds and tuberculosis. In the 16th century, Europe consumed sugar as a luxury commodity to show off its wealth and power. Due to the aristocracy’s tendency to spread, sugar finally meets black tea. It was intended to symbolize power as ‘aristocratic food’, a measure of wealth and power. Modern European culture and politics developed through coffee houses that initially sold coffee and then black tea as the main menu item.

Slaves working in sugar cane fields and plantation owners on horseback in 1823. Excerpt from Spartacus-Educational

In the 17th century, after sugar was distributed to the public, it was given the mantle of being a world product. The Dutch, who dominated the commercial world, took the lead and established large-scale sugar cane farms in the Caribbean. The original Caribbean islands were pirate enclaves with no primary productive activities. In order to meet the demand for sugar, sugar cane began to be grown in the Caribbean islands. The whole island was transformed into a sugar cane field. Europeans brought in many black slaves to develop farms known as plantations. The influx of British capital played a role in these plantations. Hundreds of thousands of black Africans were sold as slaves and forced to work. The prosperity of imperialism was based on greed for sugar.

The cultivation of sugar cane has dramatically changed the landscape and composition of the Caribbean islands. Almost all of the original indigenous people have disappeared. The population of the island was mainly black slaves from Africa. Many black slaves lived under forced labor under a very small number of white overseers. The black people who were captured at this time are the ancestors of black people in America. Where there is sugar cane, there are traces of slavery. The slave trade, where people are hunted and sold, is evidence of a brutal history. Europe profited enormously from the triangular trade between Africa, America and Europe.

Sugar is far too common in the 21st century. Sugar first appeared on Korea’s public tables in the mid-1950s, when sugar mills were established. Everyone can now enjoy the sweet taste of pure white, which was enjoyed only by a few upper class people. We now live in a society where we have excessive access to sugar.

The biggest problem for modern people who enjoy eating fast food due to chronic lack of exercise is obesity. Getty Image Bank

A third cause of obesity is the chronic lack of physical exercise of modern people. This is a problem that has arisen as sitting work has become more common. Common examples of adult metabolic diseases include high blood pressure, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, and abdominal obesity.

It is estimated that the world’s obese (adult) population will be 1 billion in 2030. It is double the 500 million people in 2010. Obesity genes, which were necessary for survival, have now become the source of all diseases. The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined obesity as a treatable disease since 1996. Obesity has been called a global epidemic. In the world, many more people die from obesity than from hunger.

In 2011, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) announced that the number of obese people worldwide exceeds the number of hungry and malnourished people. In 2010, around 20% of the world’s population was obese. The number of starving people suffering from malnutrition is more than 15%. Although it was the result of the interaction of free market forces, the federation said, “Something is going wrong.”

The leading cause of death worldwide is cardiovascular disease. A representative example is arteriosclerosis, where cholesterol or neutral fat accumulates in blood vessels, narrows them, hardens them, and eventually clogs them. Stopping smoking and preventing obesity are the most important ways to prevent cardiovascular disease. If you have diabetes, you must control your blood sugar properly through drug treatment and lifestyle. In Korea, the first cause of death is cancer and the second is cardiovascular disease.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a report called ‘Alternative Futures for Global Food and Agriculture’ in 2016. It recommended imposing taxes on harmful foods such as high-fat foods and junk foods. There are countries that have joined this movement before. Hungary has imposed a VAT on soft drinks, energy drinks, and foods high in sugar and salt since September 2011. At the time, the Hungarian government named this fat tax the Hamburger Tax. As industry lobbying came in, the tax was changed to a fried snack tax and eventually to a packaged food tax. Even before the OECD recommendations, countries around the world moved quickly to tackle obesity. Denmark imposed additional consumption taxes or tariffs on saturated fats and soft drinks, and France imposed additional taxes or excise tariffs on soft drinks. After the OECD’s recommendation, the Philadelphia City Council passed a soda (soft drink) tax. Before that, only the city of Berkeley had a soda tax. The South Indian state of Kerala was also the first state in India to introduce a fat tax on junk food in August 2016.

A man injects an injectable obesity treatment into his stomach. Wegobi, an obesity treatment from the Danish company Novo Nordisk, has recently become a worldwide sensation. This can be interpreted to mean that obesity is a worldwide concern. Getty Image Bank

The themes that heated up the US stock market this year were artificial intelligence and obesity. In the background are Nvidia and pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. The rival of Eli Lilly, which has become the 10th largest company in the world by market capitalization, is surprisingly the Danish company Novo Nordisk. Lilly is aggressively chasing obesity leader Novo Nordisk. Novo Nordisk’s injectable obesity treatment, Wygobi Syndrome, approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2021, caused a stir. Tesla CEO Elon Musk also presented this drug as his secret to losing weight. There have been shortages of medicines around the world, making them difficult to obtain even with a prescription. Although not available in Korea, its popularity is immense among those with money to spare.

Humanity is currently fighting a difficult war against hunger and obesity. That is another form of inequality. Due to high inflation, the price of hamburgers has also gone up, making it a burden for common people to even have a meal for lunch. Meanwhile, modern people’s medical costs related to obesity are increasing. The government sighs over the increasing financial burden of health insurance due to obesity.

Won-Kyung Cho, Director of the UNIST Global Industry-Academic Collaborative Center

Won-Kyung Cho, Director of the UNIST Global Industry-Academic Collaborative Center

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