The BBC reported in March 2017 that a common food that is a large part of diets today is making us fat. According to recent research, upwards of fifty percent of the those in industrialized countries are exceeding their ideal body mass index (BMI). By some estimates, over fifty percent of the world’s population is above what is considered to be their healthy weight given their height.
The culprit is a spike in the amount of vegetable oil consumed as part of our diets. In particular, palm and soy oils are so common that they should be considered a primary source of calories, along with other common staples such as wheat, barley, rice, corn, potatoes, and sugar. Indeed, the BBC reported that palm and soy oils together with these other caloric sources account for an astounding eighty-five percent of the world’s average calorie intake.
It is true that fats are a component of a healthy, balanced diet. While consumption of calories from fats are essential for life, soy and palm oils are rich sources of calories. Thus, eating foods fried in these oils compounds the caloric intake and can lead to obesity when not balanced by other foods and when not eaten in moderation.
International Trade Agreements Make Vegetable Oils Cheaper and More Plentiful
Interestingly, it is not simply consumer demand that resulted in the dramatic increase in the use of soy and palm oils. International trade agreements created a dynamic that made these oils cheaper, more profitable, and easier to produce on an industrial scale. Government subsidies in countries that have strong palm oil industries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, served to encourage the clearance of jungle to grown palm trees and incentivized farmers to focus on these crops.
These plentiful and cheap calories have been a boost to impoverished countries whose citizens were lacking in high calorie diets. For those living in highly industrialized countries, however, the increased access to these cheap, high calorie oils infiltrated food preparation to such an extent that caloric intake grew unbounded. Where once foods fried in vegetable oils were a relatively uncommon treat, over recent decades they became plentiful. Consumers responded in force, creating a reinforcing cycle that, scientists posit, has contributed to the distinct rise in obesity rates.
Sedentary Lifestyle and Lack of Regular Exercise Contribute to Higher Obesity Rates
Increased consumption of high calorie vegetable oils is not, however, the entire explanation for the rise in obesity rates. An increasingly sedentary lifestyle and lack of regular exercise are important contributing factors as well. Consumption of highly processed foods and foods high in sugar are other important factors. It would, therefore, be an oversimplification to suggest that palm and soy oils are the sole cause of the increased obesity. The fact remains, that as a common, inexpensive, and calorie intense ingredient in food preparation today, vegetable oils in general contribute to weight gain and obesity.
Obesity Rates May Have Leveled Off
The good news is that recognizing the ease with which caloric intake can spiral out of control by excessive intake of foods prepared with vegetable oils like soy and palm oil is the first step. Understanding the root causes and contributing factors to the obesity epidemic enables consumers to make healthy choices when eating at restaurants or when choosing the ingredients they will cook with at home. There is also some reassuring news in that the obesity rates have remained relatively constant for the past ten years. This signals, perhaps, that the obesity rate may have leveled off, and through informed and healthy choices the obesity rate can be brought down, leading to a healthier population overall.