Giving a hand to an older pandemic
Do we have an opportunity to redesign our feeding practices?
Early facts have shown that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is associated and might be exacerbated under conditions of obesity and its comorbidities, another pandemic that we have been facing already for years 1. To date, the former affects nearly 2.5 million people worldwide, whereas the estimates are that 2.4 billion people are obese/overweight 2. Mexico is a prime example regarding the latter issue, for instance, it has the highest prevalence of obesity and overweight among children 3. Using Mexico as an example, in this blog entry I will shed light on possible improvements to our eating behaviors that may emerge as a result of the current contingency.
Causes of the obesity issues
Factors influencing the growth of overweight and obesity in developing countries are linked to food systems transformations, which were facilitated by five major drivers: income growth, policy liberalization, infrastructure improvement, urbanization and the rise of rural nonfarm employment 4,5. These underlying causes translated into changes in family dynamics such as women increasingly working away from home, reduced time for cooking and eating, as well as increased food consumption away from home 4,6. In this sense, public health experts in Mexico have recommended for years to promote the consumption of traditional foods prepared at home and shared with family members, while spending sufficient time doing this activity 6.
Potential positive effects
The current contingency has opened a window to follow the above guidelines during its duration, as well as to reflect and plan how to adjust in the future to prolong new family dynamics. Here, I consider that the focus should be especially placed on children. Recent evidence has shown that in contrast to their parent’s eating habits, children’s diet is still malleable 7. Parents involvement is crucial in that matter, as recent evidence and best practices to encourage children’s healthy eating in Mexico have shown 8,9. Furthermore, as this type of emergencies involve food shortage risks 10, families may start thinking about growing their own foods. Intra-household relationships need to evolve in terms of shared responsibilities among its members. Thus, likely gains should be accompanied by substantial efforts.
In the post-lockdown phase, changes in the work setting are needed to reinforce this process. Forced home-office is an opportunity for employers to evaluate its effectiveness in achieving their goals, while benefiting their employees’ life balance and overall satisfaction. For instance, such schemes may enable better breastfeeding practices, which reduces the risk of child and mother’s obesity2. Others perhaps voluntarily or involuntarily are incentivized to seek more flexible work schemes, such as developing new business ideas, for which lack of time is usually one of the main constraints.
The optimistic outlook in this entry is envisioned with a long-term perspective. The nutrition transition took decades to yield our current results. Moreover, in the short-run the economic conditions do not look that promising and their associated preoccupations may not allow some individuals to even considering this possibility. In the end, it lies in each person’s responsibility to assess their chances to improve their specific situation.
The COVID-19 has challenged our societies to think if we are ready for future contingencies. From my perspective, such issues have hidden opportunities to redesign our lives. In this case, I posit that we have a chance to move our feeding practices in a healthier direction.
- Yáñez, C. Las razones que explican por qué la obesidad es un factor de riesgo en esta pandemia. La Tercera (2020). Available at: https://www.latercera.com/que-pasa/noticia/las-razones-que-explican-por-que-la-obesidad-es-un-factor-de-riesgo-en-esta-pandemia/F4J3XL2BBJABVP7XTMUKXOXVXQ/.
- Rivera-Dommarco, J. A. et al. La obesidad en México. Estado de la política pública y recomendaciones para su prevención y control. (Instituto Nacional de Salud Pública, 2018).
- Turnbull, B., Gordon, S. F., Martínez-Andrade, G. O. & González-Unzaga, M. Childhood obesity in Mexico: A critical analysis of the environmental factors, behaviours and discourses contributing to the epidemic. Heal. Psychol. Open 6, (2019).
- Popkin, B. M. & Reardon, T. Obesity and the food system transformation in Latin America. Obes. Rev. 19, 1028–1064 (2018).
- Reardon, T. et al. Rapid transformation of food systems in developing regions: Highlighting the role of agricultural research & innovations. Agric. Syst. 172, 47–59 (2019).
- Rivera-Dommarco, J., Barquera-C., S., González de Cossío, T., Campos-N., I. & Moreno-S., J. México. in La obesidad como pandemia del siglo XXI. Una perspectiva epidemiológica desde Iberoamérica (ed. Serrano-Ríos, M.) 219–246 (Real Acedemia Nacional de Medicina, 2012).
- Belot, M., Berlin, N., James, J. & Skafida, V. The Formation and Malleability of Dietary Habits: A Field Experiment with Low Income Families. (2018).
- Charness, G., Cobo-Reyes, R., Katz, G., Sánchez, Á. & Sutter, M. Improving healthy eating in children: Experimental evidence. (2019).
- Trejo-Hérnandez, D. A. & Raya-Giorguli, G. Buenas prácticas para el control y la reducción del sobrepeso y obesidad en escolares: casos en escuelas primarias de México. (FAO, 2018).
- Sikkema, A. Coronavirus crisis reveals vulnerable food supply chain. Resource (2020).