Researcher–Activist Barry Popkin

Photo by Pressbound (Melissa Gruntkosky) via Flickr

The Spring 2012 issue of On Wisconsin, the UW-Madison alumni magazine, includes this feature by Melba Newsome on Barry Popkin. A Wisconsin native and UW alum who holds a named professorship in the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina, Popkin has spent the last three decades studying, as he summarizes it, “nutrition among the poor and the interaction of socioeconomic and individual factors.”

Much of Popkin’s current work focuses on industrialized and industrializing nations and what he calls the nutrition transition. It’s a state of affairs we know all too well here in the US: “Modern societies seem to be converging on a diet high in saturated fat, sugar, and refined foods and low in fiber, often termed the ‘Western diet.’ Many see this dietary pattern to be associated with high levels of chronic and degenerative diseases and reduced disability-free time.”

As Newsome’s article describes, “Popkin doesn’t believe this is simply the result of individual overindulgence, but rather the outcome of recent trends in technology, globalization, government policy, and food industry marketing practices. He sees a direct link between the ubiquity of fast, cheap, processed foods and the growing obesity problem. He says that while the prices of meat, dairy, and sugar are about 20 percent of what they were in real terms in 1950, the cost of beans, fruits, and vegetables has gone up. The food crusader calls claims of ‘heart healthy’ products by food manufacturers false advertising, and declares excessive red meat bad for global climate control and also for human health. He once claimed that soft drinks are linked to diabetes and obesity in the way that tobacco is to lung cancer. Such inflammatory statements have landed him in pitched — but respectful — battles with many in the food industry.”

For more on Popkin, check out the On Wisconsin piece, and for an accessible view of his work, check out this streaming audio from Scientific American of an interview with Popkin that focuses on his book, “The World is Fat: The Fads, Trends, Policies, and Products That Are Fattening the Human Race.” Reviews of the book are a bit mixed, but the podcast is informative.

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