From malnutrition to childhood obesity – what is the dominant discourse?

The public discourse on nutrition and childhood has been dominated by a medical-scientific approach: for decades, the main concern has been undernutrition, so the debate has centered mainly on anthropometric measures such as statistics about weight index by height and age or vitamin deficiency. Recently, increasing rates of global obesity and the overweight have started attracting public attention. FAO’s latest report on The State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) states that although malnutrition rates continue to decline, the obesity rate continues to rise. The issue of childhood obesity is therefore likely to become a priority issue on the policy agenda of international agencies.
Obese and overweight children and adults were often seen as problems of high-income countries. However, the prevalence of these disorders is growing in low and middle-income countries, mainly in urban areas. In Africa, the number of overweight and obese girls has doubled from 5.4 million in 1990 to
10.6 million in 2014. In 2014, about half of all overweight girls were from Asia, while in Mexico it is estimated that about 30 per cent of girls are overweight.
What factors explain this pandemic? There are different approaches. On the one hand, international institutions and agencies propagate an individualistic and moralist approach that subtly blames families for not feeding children properly and letting them watch television or the Internet all day long instead of playing sports. According to this approach, the urban lifestyle, with its specific organization of the day, its types of work and its social relations, has changed “traditional” (read “healthy”) dietary habits and replaced them with more “modern” habits, generated by so-called development. The solution proposed by this approach is to better inform and educate consumers so that they make healthier food choices in the supermarkets and encourage them to exercise.

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