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Fabrizio Ferro Ferretti

Economist – School of Social Sciences, UNIMORE – University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy

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October 17, 2017 · 150 Reads

Simple vs. Complex Carbohydrate and the Global Obesity Epidemic

In Short: Using data for 185 countries worldwide, researchers measure the impact of a country’s standard of living and on population average Body Mass Index.

Motivation behind the research

In the vast majority of world cultures and geographic regions, carbohydrates usually serve as the humans primary source of energy. However, not all carbohydrates ‘are created equal’ in nutritional sciences. Complex carbohydrates—derived from whole and unprocessed plant-based foods (e.g., whole grains)—are generally considered healthier than simple ‘carbs’,  especially those derived from high-processed and sugar-added foods and beverages (e.g., snacks and soft drinks)—which usually provide ‘empty calories’ (i.e., calories without nutrients)—whose increasing consumption is regarded as a major driver of the worldwide spread of overweight and obesity, notably among children and young adults in both developed and developing countries.

The Discovery

We found that a 1% increase in the share of sugar and sweeteners in the average consumers’ food intake tends to increase the country’s obesity rate by 0.5%. On the contrary, a 1% increase in the share of cereal decreases the obesity rate by around 0.4%. We use these results to compute, for each country, an indicator of the population carbohydrate dietary pattern, based upon the ratio of the shares of simple to complex carbohydrates, in which each share is weighted by the value of its negative or positive impact on obesity.

Our data showed that especially in poor countries a rising income per capita tends to push populations towards unhealthy western eating behaviours which promote overweight and obesity

Study Limitations

We developed a model of consumer behaviour that emphasizes some key variables on which public health authorities should operate to tackle the spread of obesity and being overweight. This model should alsobe tested at micro-economic level, i.e. by using individual data instead of country data.

The Future

Obesity is a complex health issue with a multi-factorial aetiology, involving genetic, behavioural, and environmental (i.e., cultural, economic and social) factors. Our finding highlights the value of providing an economic framework to support epidemiological studies. Further research is needed to develop a genuinely interdisciplinary approach to the study of overweight and obesity.

Research Article: Simple vs. Complex Carbohydrate Dietary Patterns and the Global Overweight and Obesity Pandemic (2017) International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

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