The World Is Fat by Barry Popkin Book Review

Reports in media and empirical studies highlight the alarming sharp increase in the global rates of obesity and overweight as well as the resultant health outcomes. There is a heated debate regarding the cause of the increase in obesity and the approach that is most likely to be effective in reversing this worrying trend. For instance, there are divergent views as to whether overweight and obesity can be attributed to physical activity or food, or whether people in the modern society are just lazy, or whether the environment is influencing people’s behavior to adopt sedentary lifestyles. In addition, it is difficult to position the role of government intervention and corporate responsibility among others. Amidst these debates, the book, The World Is Fat: The Fads, Policies, and Products That Are Fattening the Human Race written by Barry Popkin offers important insights regarding the history and trends of the obesity epidemic. Popkin (2009) attempts to link the global obesity pandemic to a number of factors, which include government policies that propel instead of reducing the factors supporting energy imbalance; lack of action from governments; the growth of the food industry; an increase in the availability of poor-nutrient; and worldwide technological advances. Another factor that has been emphasized by Popkin (2009) in resulting in the obesity menace is globalization, which the author asserts has played a pivotal role in ensuring that people have unlimited access to diverse unhealthful foods that were not significant in the culture and history of mankind. Basing on this line of thinking, Popkin (2009) highlights the need for governments to be involved in crafting the solution to the health problem. Popkin relied on comprehensive research regarding the changes in dietary intake during the last 30 years in numerous countries such as the United States, Mexico, China and India.

Framing the Public Health Issue Including the Author’s Perspective and Alternative Perspectives

As mentioned before, the cause of the increase of obesity level and the approach that is most likely to be effective in reversing this worrying trend are issues of contention. Popkin (2009) explains that, in the course of human existence, the only beverage that was available after the initial few years of life was water. Recently, beverages having caloric content have been introduced; however, people have not changed their caloric intake from solid foods. In this regard, Popkin asserts that, if the consumption of water was capable of lessening hunger, then humans would have not embarked on searching for food; thus, humans would have perished. The underlying argument is that liquid calories do not satisfy the food requirements, and studies have affirmed that people fail to compensate for their calories by reducing solid food intake, which is somewhat problematic owing to the fact that at least 450 of daily calories in an average adult are derived from beverages. In this respect, Popkin is of the view that an increase in the intake of sweetened beverages is a major driving factor for the increase of the global prevalence of obesity, something that nutrition and public health experts also agree with. A proposed strategy aimed at preventing obesity is taxing sugar-sweetened beverages. However, the food and beverage industry has vehemently opposed this proposal. In addition, the public has not been enthusiastic about the proposal of taxing sugar-sweetened beverages. Taxes remain a contentious issue regardless of the capability of taxes in improving public health and generating considerable healthcare revenue.


Popkin (2009) has a precise public health message, which advocates for government intervention and corporate responsibility in dealing with obesity; this is contrasted with the views of psychologists on the matter, which focus on individual responsibility. Psychologists usually embark on offering individual-level treatment for obesity, something that the book strongly opposes. The author is of the view that governments are to play a significant role in addressing the worldwide problem of obesity.

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A Systematic Review of the Topic from Peer-Reviewed Journals

There is vast literature relating to the issue of obesity, especially with regard to the determinants of obesity and prevention strategies. The assertion by Popkin (2009) that obesity is a global epidemic, in both rich and poor countries and among all societal segments, has been affirmed in the literature (Gortmaker et al., 2011). Government intervention and actions by other pertinent institutions are needed to address the issue of obesity. In the case of tobacco control, behavioral intervention is more common; however, past successes have been attributed to the use of the diverse range of policies. In the case of obesity control, it is more complex. Changes required in reversing the obesity trends will need several interventions implemented at various levels such as individual behavioral change; changes in workplaces, homes and schools; and sector changes in urban planning, transportation, education, food services and agriculture. Despite the fact that there exists vast evidence on the need to address obesity, there is no consensus regarding the most effective strategies and policies. The views of Popkin (2009) are replicated in “Changing the Future of Obesity: Science, Policy and Action” by Gortmaker et al., (2011), who argue that multiple players, especially governments, civil society, the private sector and the international organizations, have to implement complementary actions using an approach that is coordinated. Gortmaker et al., (2011), just like Popkin (2009), advocate for an increase in prevention strategies related to population obesity monitoring in both non-health and health industries, which the authors refer to as “a sustained worldwide effort” to prevent, monitor and control obesity (p. 845).

Swinburn et al., (2011) also share similar views as Popkin (2007), they report that the concurrent increases in the prevalence of obesity across several countries can be attributed to the changes occurring in the global food system. In tackling these changes, Swinburn et al., (2011) report that the government is better positioned to adopt policies that can be effective in dealing with obesity at the population level. Nevertheless, there are other studies that contrast the views of Popkin, that is, they prevent evidence for more individual-level interventions rather than population-level interventions. For instance, Summerbell et al., (2005) report that behavioral interventions aimed at reducing screen time are more effective in reducing the onset of obesity among children, and that worksite programs and counseling interventions are effective in preventing the onset of obesity among adults. Owing to the fact that, in literature, there is the consensus as regards the most effective approach in preventing obesity, it is relatively difficult to ascertain whether Popkin’s opinion is consistent with the totality of evidence.

Personal Discussion

The choice of The World Is Fat draws upon the global perspective of the book, which is contrasted with other books covering obesity that are mostly focused on the United States. In addition, Popkin has vast research experience in economic, agriculture and global nutrition; as a result, the author has been able to provide a detailed description of the history of the issue with in-depth understanding and knowledge. As a public health practitioner, the book provides important insights with respect to the approaches that can be used to prevent obesity including the role of government intervention and corporate responsibility. Using the information presented in the book, I would advocate for population-level approaches in preventing obesity.

References:

  1. Gortmaker, S., Swinburn, B., Levy, D., Carter, R., Mabry, P., Finegood, D., et al. (2011). Changing the future of obesity: Science, policy and action. Lancet, 378 (9793): 838–847.
  2. Popkin, B. (2009). The world is fat: The fads, trends, policies, and products that are fattening the human race. New York, NY: Penguin.
  3. Summerbell, C.D., Waters, E., Edmunds, L.D., Kelly, S., Brown, T., & Campbell, K.J. (2005). Interventions for preventing obesity in children. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (3): CD001871.
  4. Swinburn, B.A., Sacks, G., Hall, K.D., McPherson, K., Finegood, D.T., Moodie, M.L., et al. (2011). The global obesity pandemic: Shaped by global drivers and local environments. Lancet, 378(9793): 804-814.

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