We’re all malnourished now

‘White is black, black is white, fat is malnourished, so that’s all right.’ Such a rhyming couplet could be a slogan for public-health campaigners, after the claim in the 2016 Global Nutrition Report that a third of the world’s people are malnourished.

But ‘malnourished’ here doesn’t mean scarily underweight, it means any food-related problem, too. The report declares: ‘Every country is facing a serious public-health challenge from malnutrition. One in three people are malnourished in one form or another. Malnutrition manifests itself in many forms: as children who do not grow and develop to their full potential; as people who are skin-and-bone or prone to infection; [and] as people who carry too much weight or whose blood contains too much sugar, salt, or cholesterol.’

According to one of the lead authors of the study, Professor Corinna Hawkes, the report ‘redefines what the world thinks of as being malnourished’. This is Monty Python stuff. Conflating problems of diet that might knock a couple of years off someone’s old age with the sort of undernutrition that leads to long-term stunting, cognitive problems, or even a tragically early death, is madness. But while the problem of malnutrition, as most people understand it, is being solved, with an ever-smaller proportion of people chronically lacking food, so policy wonks have to redefine their mission to justify their continued existence.

Such redefinitions are not new. ‘Overweight’ and ‘obesity’ are conflated routinely, especially when it comes to children, to produce staggering figures for the levels of unhealthy weight. Similarly, laws that clamp down on vaping do so by claiming that e-cigs are a ‘tobacco product’ simply because the pure nicotine used as an ingredient in e-cig liquid is derived from tobacco plants. On this basis, food crops and terrorist bombs should be treated in the same way because they both derive from fertiliser.

Thus, in the Global Nutrition Report, demands for action to increase the supply of fruits and vegetables, and access to safe dairy products, sit alongside calls for a crackdown on sugary drinks and salty snacks. Access to an adequate diet is placed on a par with demands to reduce personal choice. At every level, state intervention is presented as the solution.

The real problem here is poverty – and kowtowing to the obsessions of every food campaigner and activist researcher will only hamper the goal of eliminating genuine malnutrition.

Rob Lyons is campaigns manager at Action on Consumer Choice.

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