In America, a sociology researcher discovered why poor people indulged in junk food: not only was it affordable, it was one of few indulgences they could afford. This referred to high-calorie food from fast food restaurants, prepackaged snacks like chin chin and soda, etc.
Meanwhile, wealthier people opted for healthier options because they could afford them and because it was responsible to have a healthier diet. Even when poor people tried to maintain a healthy diet, they found it prohibitively expensive and resorted back to junk food.
But what is true in America is not entirely true in developing countries. In such places, junk food is heavily consumed by the rich and poor, and increased income doesn't translate into a healthier diet. Not unless higher income also triggers behavioural change.
The idea that diet changes as countries get richer is known as nutrition transition. There are five established transition patterns of nutrition as a country develops: the hunter-gatherer phase; early agriculture phase; end of famine; overeating/obesity-related diseases; and behavioural change. Many developing countries are caught between phase 3 and 4. i.e., between the end of famine and the onset of obesity-related diseases.
Countries transition out of famine as they get richer because rising incomes mean that people can now afford healthier dietary options. Often, this increased access to a wider variety of food leads countries into the obesity-related diseases phase, where high-calorie foods are not only easily accessible but also more convenient for a working population. In short, rising incomes tend to create a society of time-poor people who develop lax eating habits. The size of Nigeria's fast food industry (or the ‘Quick Service Restaurant’) – estimated to be over ₦1 trillion – indicates how accessible junk food has become, and how regularly Nigerians indulge in them.
At this stage, a good portion of the population develops obesity and related diseases because they live a more sedentary and less active lifestyle. The World Health Organisation has highlighted that this social shift is occurring more frequently in developing countries. Data supports this view, too; consumption of unhealthy commodities like soft drinks, process foods, tobacco, and alcohol is growing much quicker in low and middle-income countries. So, as a poor country becomes a bit richer, it also becomes less healthy.
But it doesn't stay that way. At the ‘behavioral change’ phase, society realises the need to prioritise healthy eating and begins to promote dietary and nutritional changes. Nigeria is flirting with this stage, considering the rise of a #FitFam culture and the greater focus on diet and exercise in recent years. Just ask the Lagosians on their morning jog on the Lekki-Ikoyi bridge. Of course, you can trust Nigeria’s case to be peculiar, as it is very likely that we are experiencing the last three stages of nutrition transition at the same time: famine, obesity, and behavioural change.
Disparity in Nutrition
You’ve probably figured out by now that the problems of overeating and obesity do not affect the entire population. After all, fast food restaurants are most popular in cities. While data does show that nutritional imbalances related to overeating are slowly making their way into rural areas, there are still some significant urban-rural differences when it comes to nutrition. Perhaps by virtue of a greater access to junk food, urban residents are more likely to be overweight than those in rural areas, irrespective of gender or level of economic development.
Interestingly, the differences do not only exist between rural and urban areas. Disparities exist within urban areas as well, particularly, between the urban-poor and urban-rich. Whereas we can attribute urban-rural differences to disparities in access and income, intra-urban differences can mostly be attributed to income. The prevalence of urban poverty means that as many people can afford more-than-enough food to sustain them, there are likely many more fretting over the source of their next meal.
The Need for Balance
So, income and class play a significant role in nutrition, but behavioural change is necessary for increased income to lead to healthier lifestyles. The richer you are, the more healthy food you can afford, but you need to choose to eat healthily. As developing countries grow and their diets change, they need to find the sweet spot between increased access to healthy food, and a time-poor culture that encourages less healthy options. Finally, we still need to address inequities in access to food within societies. It is to a society's shame if you can find two sets of people, living side by side, one group dying from having too little to eat, and the other dying from having too much.
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