There has been a fair amount of talk in the media over the past decade about the alarming increase in childhood obesity in the United States – but it turns out that it’s not just happening here. It’s happening in virtually every developing country on the planet, including places you wouldn’t expect. In African countries, the number of overweight and obese children under the age of five has nearly doubled over the past 25 years. Amazingly, almost half of the world’s overweight children reside in Asian countries.

It is one of the great ironies of our age. Even in more advanced, industrial nations, children from low-income and impoverished families are more likely to be overweight.

What is going on here, and why is this happening?

There are multiple causes for this epidemic of morbid obesity, and most of it has to do with economic inequality. The sad fact is that healthier, more nutritious foods are costlier, while high-fat convenience foods and high-sugar snacks are abundant and cheap. Sugar is a serious part of the equation, particularly when it comes in the form of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). This substance is literally “sugar on steroids.” It is also pervasive; a huge percentage of commercially-processed foods today contain this ingredient. The reason: it’s far sweeter than honey or cane sugar, and it’s incredibly cheap. It’s also incredibly fattening. A 2010 research study at Princeton University showed that laboratory rats that were fed HFCS gained considerably more weight, even though their overall intake of calories was no different than that of the control group. Statistics recorded since HFCS began replacing cane sugar in so many processed foods show a direct correlation between the consumption of HFCS and obesity. (Naturally, commercial food corporations deny this.) It wasn’t the first such study; another team of researchers came to the same conclusions in 2004. This idea is a bit controversial as some argue that fructose is not any more harmful than regular sugar, and that caloric intake is most important in losing or gaining weight. Whether its fructose or cane sugar, the most pressing concern is whether or not you are limiting your calorie intake.

Another contributing cause: the aggressive marketing and availability of “fast food.” In 2003, CBS News did a story on increased obesity and health problems among Europeans that was attributed to the consumption of American-style fast food. The problem was particularly dire in Greece, where young people had turned away from the culture’s traditional, centuries-old Mediterranean diet in favor of “The Great American Meal.”  As a result, those young people wound up obese, suffering from heart disease, and a host of other health issues requiring medical treatment and even hospitalization. Meanwhile, the older people who stuck to their time-honored traditional diets were still active and healthy well into their eighties and nineties.

There is another aspect to this crisis that was discovered recently by researchers at the University of Helsinki. In that study, the researchers found evidence indicating that the use of antibiotics in early life may alter the natural microbial flora that lives in the human digestive system in ways that leave children predisposed to weight gain as well as respiratory issues. In an article published in a recent issue of the journal Nature Communications, the researchers stated that “Antibiotic use…was associated with a long-term reduction in microbial richness” – which alters metabolism in ways that can cause abnormal weight gain.

The childhood obesity epidemic around the world is a complex problem with many causes – all related to modern methods of food production, sedentary lifestyles and health care. Much of it is related to poverty, but also lack of education and misguided “good intentions.” It may be time to take a hard look at indigenous peoples who are still able to live a traditional lifestyle and acknowledge the strong possibility that not everything humans do is necessarily an improvement on nature.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues.