Feeding an extra portion too much

the unwholesome way to growing them up

Editor’s note: As under-nourishment is receding and developing countries are moving up the economic ladder; the generation Z’s are getting overindulgent in fast food and sedentary lifestyles.

The effect is burdening and menacingly giving rise to several diseases. At this rate, halting the tide of obesity by 2025 may remain challenging unless and until the feeding behavior for children is addressed. The author digs deeper into how the problem gets initiated early in life, by looking at the world through his lens of numbers.

Laughing Buddha these days do wonder if it’s time to shed those extra kilos and become the modern age Zen.
Image credit Pixabay.

In the last couple of months, my wife and I have put on a few extra kilos, which we are keen to shed now. For this makes our aging bones toiling much harder, especially in lifting the increased weights up the staircase to our third-floor apartment. We were quick to attribute this condition to the harsh winter this time around and its attendant high level of air pollution in the national capital region, which prevented us from our usual outdoor activities in the morning. So, as the spring set in we have resumed our routine morning workouts.

In the park we visit, as we make the rounds, we, therefore keep ourselves particularly observant of the masses of living matter that other people are carrying on their feet so that we get some psychological comfort from the weight-comparing drills we do with the eyes.

Unlike Indians in general, people of our area are well known for their good physique and higher consciousness about the figure and shape of their own persons. Strangely enough, our eye estimation suggested, much to our satisfaction, that oversized figures have outnumbered, by a good margin, the wiry figures typical of this area. I got convinced, thanks to these pot-bellied visitors, of how the food industry has fatted here.

No, this opening narrative is no anecdotal evidence as my description may suggest; nor the result of an aberration of parallactic vision. It’s just an inset image within a bigger picture of nutritional transformation that people from all parts of the globe are being subjected to.

Yes, lopsided nourishment is what nutritional transformation is all about and evidently one of the ill effects of economic development causing drastic changes in food culture.

The Rapidly Growing Overfed

Created by the extremes of the food supply, the world we are living in now is polarized between hundreds of millions of unfed and overfed people. A research published in 2016 has revealed how the growing number of overfed people has brought about a new imbalance – offsetting the broader social, economic and medical concerns for the unfed and underfed population. The study shows an enourmous 167% rise in the number of obese people between 1975 and 2014 compared to only 35% fall in the number of underweight people during the same period.

Obesity increment rate has outpaced the decline of the underweight.
In the last 40 years, the number of obese people has increased by almost 2.6 fold from 105 million in 1975 to 641 million in 2014. Plotted by the author; Data Source: NCD Risk Factor Collaboration (NCD-RisC)

Overweight and obesity are defined as ”abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health”. Generally, for an adult, these are measured by a person’s body mass index (BMI), which is a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of his height in meters (kg/m2). An adult with a BMI of 25 to 29 is considered to be overweight, while someone with a reading of 30 or more is obese. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), unfortunately, more women than men are tipping the scales at obesity levels. This could be attributed to several factors like lifestyle, economic conditions, racial makeup, and preexisting health conditions. Regardless to say obesity could consequently impact women’s reproductive health.

Concerns about the health and economic burden of increasing BMI have led to adiposity (i.e., a condition of being severely overweight or, obese) being included among the global non-communicable disease (NCD) targets, with a target of halting, by 2025, the rise in the prevalence of obesity at its 2010 level.

Age-standardized mean BMI in men (A) and women (B) by country in 1975 and 2014.
Data Source: NCD Risk Factor Collaboration (NCD-RisC)

Disease Burden: Obesity vs. Under-nutrition

Globally more people are obese than underweight – this occurs in every region except parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Overweight and obesity are also linked to more deaths worldwide than underweight. Although there’s been a focus on mortality, there’s a huge volume related to things that don’t really kill you. Jessica Hamzelou wrote in 2012 about a shift in disease burden.

In 1990, under-nutrition was a leading cause of disease burden, measured as the number of years of healthy life an average person could expect to lose as a result of illness or early death. Back then, a high body-mass index, or BMI, was ranked tenth. Now, under-nutrition has dropped to eighth place, while BMI has risen to become the sixth leading cause of disease burden.

Jessica Hamzelou

Morning shows the day

Childhood obesity threatens our younger generations, similar to what under-nourishment did in the past few decades. The prevalence of overweight and obesity among children (under-5) and adolescents aged 5-19 has risen dramatically from just 4% in 1975 to over 18% in 2016. However, this trend remained consistent for both the genders, unlike adults.

Standards of measuring overweight/obesity for children under 5 years of age are, however, different from those for adults and adolescents. Unlike BMI, this is measured from the weight-for-height distribution of a vast number of children. In the case of overweight and obese children, the weight-for-height lies in the higher extremes of this distribution.

One of the leading causes of childhood obesity is the larger portions fed in early childhood days, according to Hayley Syrad, from University College, London. Some parents may be over-feeding their children, and in the process driving them to a higher risk of obesity-related health hazards. So the problems do show up just in childhood when a healthy diet and healthy size of diet-portions are often lost sight of.

Studies show that overweight children are more likely to become overweight adults. Even birth weight tracks a person’s growth to adulthood: “A bigger baby is likely to be a bigger child and then a bigger adult”, researchers said. Dr. Clair McCarthy, of Harvard Health Publishing, predicted based on a new study in December 2017 that more than half of the children are going to be obese adults.

Not only are more than half of current children going to be obese by 35, but an obese 2-year-old has only a one in four chance of not being obese at age 35. If that 2-year-old is severely obese, the chance of being at a healthy weight at 35 is only one in five. By the time that severely obese child is 5, they have only a one in 10 chance of not being obese at 35.

Dr. Clair McCarthy, of Harvard Health Publishing

Over-nourishment – an effect of economic transition

The global burden of obesity and overweight has increased at an accelerated rate as the under-developed and developing countries have moved up the economic ladder and switched from traditional diets to western food styles, B M Popkin and L S Adair et al,. of the University of North Carolina observed. This Nutrition transition in case of children under 5 years of age has resulted in a great extent from the practice of feeding large meals that wouldn’t have been afforded otherwise by parents from lower income bracket.

The concern about the growing prevalence of overweight children, therefore, is no longer restricted to developed countries alone. With the economic situation improving in developing countries, child-feeding behavior is changing in these countries too.

We take the help of statistics for some of the developing countries to show how those who can afford to spend more on food are more prone to have overweight children. Compared to children from the families of the lowest echelon of income (termed 1st wealth quintile or 20% population of the lowest income), children from the 5th wealth quintile families (comprising 20% population with the highest income) are exposed to a higher prevalence of overweight, as the developing countries’ data shows.

The tendency and stimulus to feed large portions of meals that cause more harm to a child’s growth are linked to having enough money.
Plotted by the author; Data source- UNICEF’s Expanded Global Database on malnutrition 2019

Urban lifestyle impacts feeding practices

The phenomenon of the prevalence of overweight children being correlated with the economic condition of their parents is also discernible from the rural-urban differential of the prevalence. The fact that urban people are economically better off than rural people in countries of the developing world is reflected in how they feed their children.

Lack of capacity to afford and lesser accessibility to pre-prepared and packaged foods of low nutrition is a boon in disguise for people in rural areas of the developing countries. Children of rural areas as compared to urban children, therefore, are less exposed to overfeeding as may be evident from the prevalence differentials in some of the developing countries.

Overfeeding children is more of an urban trait.
Plotted by the author; Data source- UNICEF’s Expanded Global Database on malnutrition 2019

Rapid urbanization and improving connectivity, however, are quickly obliterating the rural-urban divide. A study has attributed the global obesity epidemic among adults to the rising rural-BMI.

…contrary to the dominant paradigm, more than 55% of the global rise in mean BMI from 1985 to 2017—and more than 80% in some low- and middle-income regions—was due to increases in BMI in rural areas…rural under-nutrition disadvantage in poor countries (being replaced) with a more general malnutrition disadvantage that entails excessive consumption of low-quality calories.

NCD Risk Factor Collaboration (NCD-RisC)

Educated mothers do them more harm

Data shows children being overweight is more prevalent where mothers of the children are more educated. Children by mothers having no education or primary education are less likely to be overfed than children of mothers having secondary or higher education according to estimates of the WHO-UNICEF-World Bank Group joint malnutrition database.

Female education in developing countries is positively correlated with the economic condition of people. So, the more educated mothers are likely to be from economically better off families and, therefore, have feeding behavior as of the higher  Wealth Quintal population. Education seems to have mattered little as the chart below shows for the selected developing countries. 

Mothers should know that babies and young children who are not overweight should eat until they are full rather than being made to finish everything on their plate.
Plotted by the author; Data source: UNICEF’s Expanded Global Database on malnutrition 2019.

To halt the increasing economic and health burden of obesity, the growing prevalence of overweight children can’t be set aside for the future. It needs urgent attention in developing countries and must not be allowed to slip out of hands. Focus on sensitizing the mothers to arrest the proliferation is the key.

Parents must practice responsive feeding or feeding when hungry

It’s a common mistake among parents to overfeed their toddlers, thinking it’s a necessary way of making sure they grow up healthy. Pressuring a child to eat is a feeding behavior that attracted the most attention of researchers. It’s the size of the portions of the feed forced upon children that matters in spoiling response behavior of children more than the frequency of feeding or feeding an extra Mars bar or an apple, said the researchers. A child should eat a child-sized portion, not an adult-sized one. Using smaller plates is one way to make this easier. For every extra 24 calories consumed during each meal, there was a 9% increased risk of becoming overweight or obese, studies found.

Forcing the child to eat raises the risk of weight gain by undermining the child’s ability to self-regulate food intake.
Image credit Pixabay.

If post-2000 trends of accelerated growth of overweight/obesity continue unabated, especially among children, the probability of meeting the global obesity target is virtually zero. Halting the growth has to happen from the beginning when the children will be tuned to regulate how their own appetite should be fulfilled, and mothers will stop pressing for an extra portion.

Author: Satyabrata Chakrabarti; Edits and blog design: Rituparna Chakrabarti

We publish using the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license so that users can read, download and reuse text and data for free – provided the authors, illustrators, and the primary sources are given appropriate credit.

The ‘Capacity’ Paradox – part 2

Editor’s note: Continuing the narrative from the previous part, the author delves in the depth of capacity crisis for sustainable development data. He is optimistic that the challenges are going to open up new vistas for national and international agencies to cooperate on mutually reinforcing efforts.

Not grabbing the opportunity for creating the appropriate capacity to address the data gaps, in the opinion of the author, could be as costly a mistake as failing the people of their rights. The narrative ends with a sigh for the dream data remaining elusive.

I presented some pieces of data and a chart in the last part related to some selected countries to demonstrate how the countries have progressed in developing the national capacity for production and dissemination of official statistics.  Any intelligent person who knows that one must always look into the elements the data are made of would be reasonably justified to conclude that the countries of the developing world are doing well in gradually improving their statistical capacity in terms of a defined set of parameters

At the same time, however, what message these impressive ‘score-lines’ give to a layman is a question that may have bothered none. Could it be simply a notion as being understood by a common man that some countries have already crossed the 90% mark and therefore, have not much to achieve further? If so, is it not an impression NSO’s would love to project in unreserved exhibitionism?

Now there lies a fallacy in this notion.

Let’s face it as a question that a common man could ask: Does the score in a true sense reflect a complete image of a county’s statistical capacity?  Or, it’s just a fractured image? 

One must not miss seeing what the SCI metadata has to say about this by way of explaining the structure, constituents, method, and rationale of the indicator. However, before we are done with the metadata thing, let’s try to understand the fallacy a bit more clearly.

Countries are severely constrained in statistical capacity to meet the challenges confronting the statistical systems as of 2018. Image credit Meghna Chakrabarti

Countries are in fact severely constrained in statistical capacity to meet the challenges confronting the statistical systems as of 2018. By 2016, the nations of the world were already seized with the 2030 Agenda of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that their leaders had committed to achieving in the interest of the humanity and the planet earth.

Attaining the SDG targets under the goals by the year 2030, as they say, crucially depend on the countries’ ability to track the progress with good penetrative statistics. Knowing just the national count of the people to be reached with the good effects is not enough; a much stronger statistical capacity is required to know who they are, where they are located and what challenges they are facing.

A new statistical framework of 230+ indicators has been prescribed for tracking progress towards attaining the targets. An assessment of the IAEG-SDGs of the UN has revealed that as of 13 February 2019: The updated tier classification contains 101 Tier I indicators, 84 Tier II indicators, and 41 Tier III indicators

This means, over 125 indicators (over 54%) belonging to Tier II,  Tier III or multi-tier category have either no internationally established standards or methodology available, or data are not regularly published by the countries.  This is a serious capacity deficit and a global syndrome.

Apart from these conceptual and methodological challenges, the overarching SDG principle of leaving no one behind has raised the bar (for the national statistical offices as well as for global monitoring agencies). UNICEF’s report ‘Progress for Every Child in the SDG Era underscores the criticality:

It is no longer enough to monitor progress by global aggregates or national averages alone. Results need to be disaggregated to monitor progress among sub-national groups of people, especially those who are vulnerable such as the girls, children living in remote rural areas or informal urban settlements.

Children and Gender equality are central to the whole of the SDG agenda. 44 child-related indicators are situated under the 17 SDGs. Analyzing these indicators, UNICEF’s report maps them thematically into 5 dimensions of children’s rights:

  • the right to survive and thrive (17 indicators under SDG 2 and SDG 3)
  • the right to learn (5 indicators under SDG 4)
  • the right to be protected from violence (10 indicators under SDG 5, SDG 8 and SDG 16)
  • the right to live in a safe and clean environment (10 indicators under SDG 1, SDG 3, SDG 6, SDG 7 and SDG 13)
  • the right to a fair chance / to have an equal opportunity to succeed (4 indicators under SDG 1)

The report reveals that data are not available for each of these dimensions in substantial proportions (of the 202 countries covered): 22% missing the data for the dimension ‘survive & thrive’; 63% for the dimension ‘learning’; 64% for the dimension ‘protection’; 24% for the dimension ‘environment’; and 63% missing for the dimension ‘fair chance’.

If we look at the gender responsive indicators of the SDGs (there are 54 in number spread over 12 of the 17 SDGs), the story is no different – “only about 26% of the data necessary for global monitoring of the gender-specific indicators are currently available”.

When this is the picture at the national level, the stories of non-availability of data at the sub-national levels for the child- or gender-related indicators, or for any other sub-populations/groups of people are obviously all the more disquieting, not to speak of the untrodden areas of environment, climate, life below water and the like affecting livability on earth.

So, a person struggling for the SDG data would wonder whether the 2018 SCI score is any indication of the actual current statistical capacity of a country or what? As its structural constitution is defined for a pre-SDG framework and not redesigned post-2015 to account for the data on SDG indicators, SCI in the present form just reflects a statistical capacity for an incomplete basket of statistical deliverables.

The varying degrees of challenges confronting national statistical offices with the advent of the SDGs in not being able to produce the required data, especially disaggregated data, for the lack of capacity could be somewhat fathomed if realistically assessed statistical capacity were known overall for the countries and for the constituent dimensions. A warrant for action is already spelled out in what Target 18 under SDG 17 states:

By 2020, enhance capacity-building support to developing countries, including for least developed countries and small island developing States, to increase significantly the availability of high-quality, timely and reliable data disaggregated by income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location and other characteristics relevant in national contexts.

The target essentially calls for action on the part of development agencies which will eagerly seek information on the intensity and depth of capacity deficit in the face of the SDGs across the world to assess how much effort and energy they may have to apply and where.

The SCI, if re-engineered taking into account the SDG indicators, could provide much of that all-important insight in terms of the score-levels of statistical capacity. Undoubtedly, a new score for 2018 by the hypothetical SDG-laden SCI should invariably be much lower than the existing 2018 score for even the very-high-scoring countries in the World Bank database. Now these hypothetically discordant scores as compared to the existing scorelines could potentially instigate debate within the number cognoscenti.

If it were so happening, anyone, in the same way as what happened to Mark Twain, might easily be tempted to ascribe the denigrated numbers to incredibility of statistics. Save probably those who studied the metadata and appreciated the plausibility of how scores could dwindle on loading the construction framework of SCI with additional parameters as of SDGs; they might easily argue, ‘a student of the fourth standard scoring 90 % overall in the fourth grade examination will in all probability do extremely badly if allowed to sit for an eighth grade test.’ Then that’s a matter of capacity gap – a gap due to the difference in the frame of reference as it would be the case if the SDGs were embedded in the SCI framework.

Statistical capacity indicator scores from 2004-18 in 8 developing nations. Data compiled by the author, source World Bank, SCI database.

In the chart depicted in the previous section (also see above), the temporal ups and downs of the lines, however, are happening in spite of no change in the frame of reference of the SCI. These are somewhat akin to fluctuations in productivity (I spoke of in part 1).Change in the frame of reference by placing the SDGs on the SCI framework could materialize if and only when the data would be forthcoming on the majority of SDG indicators.

Since 2004, when Marrakesh Action Plan for Statistics was developed,  strategic planning has been  recognised to be a powerful engine for guiding the  national statistics development programmes (NSDP), increasing political and financial support for statistics, and ensuring that countries are able to produce the data and statistics needed for monitoring and evaluating their development outcomes. A Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data has come into being at Cape Town in January 2017 for coordinated action on capacity development for sustainable development data.

Is it still too soon to expect the governments and statistics agencies to be investing resources and energies for augmenting the capacity to produce sustainable development data?

The governments and statistics agencies investing resources and energies for augmenting the capacity to produce sustainable development.
Image creditMeghna Chakrabarti

Dreaming a dream of the spring setting in when the agencies of change go on waving the magic wands (to transform the data eco-system), the ‘goose’ of golden data lies in slumber. And thus, SCI keeps on serving with the scores as they are – the only presentable measures of statistical capacity that does not lay the ‘golden eggs’.

This blog originated out of a dinner table conversation at the Chakrabarti household, where Satyabrata Chakrabarti (the dad and former Deputy Director General at Central Statistics Office, Government of India), tries to convince his two daughters of the impact and current assessment of a statistical tool for social and economic sectors. While Meghna and I go in a trajectory to assess, its impacts in our fields.

Cover image by Meghna Chakrabarti (L), Author Satyabrata Chakrabarti (M) and editing/blog design by Rituparna Chakrabarti (R)

We publish using the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license so that users can read, download and reuse text and data for free – provided the authors, illustrators, and the primary sources are given appropriate credit.

What is social media doing to us?

Are we really connected?

Are we really connected? Meghna Chakrabarti

Recently I came across this short animated film on Youtube named ‘Best Friend’. The story revolves around a man named Arthur who lives all by himself and is addicted to a product called ‘Best Friend’.

Arthur does not have friends. He lives in a time far into future where everyone has some sort of a chip implanted in their brains which allows them to see projections of people, customized only for them; people whom they can call ‘friends’.

Fast forward to the ending climax of the movie, Arthur gets into trouble with a vagabond when he tries to recharge his chip. The vagabond, in desperation to have ‘friends,’ rips out the chip from Arthur.

Scary, isn’t it?

The movie highlighted an alarming perspective of the current psychology of the tech-savvy, social media addicted millennials. Although social media has been successful in making the world more connected, it has also established a false sense of connectivity.

Like the chip implanted in Arthur’s brain, social media has emerged as a necessity for every individual. Without its involvement, You are nobody; You are “friendless”!

Obviously, the creators of social networking sites nurture this fear of being alone, to make sure their clients are dependent on them. I often wondered why people posted so many photos of themselves on social media. I feel that social media has made the norm so, that we put up a facade for the world to see, to be somebody we are not, to let people know how amazing a life we lead even if it is not real.


More likes, more followers, more ‘friends’. Not getting enough likes on a post seems maddening enough that it can potentially send a person into depression. I think why social media is so addictive is because we can connect to an individual or a group without making much of an effort and confrontation. That may be a plus point. However, can one really connect to a person and be empathetic by just exchanging a few texts? I think not.

Human beings are social animals, we rely on our senses to experience the world around us. When it comes to connecting with others, these senses help us to kindle intimate connections. Social media can surely connect people who may be far away from each other, but it still lacks the physical sense of being.

I am not negating the positives that social media has to offer. Indeed, without the benefits of the internet, a few years ago, talking to someone far off and conveying our thoughts and opinions on a large platform seemed tedious. Now, the internet stands as a tool for the millennials to connect globally and bring about social awareness on a large scale; something that seemed impossible a decade ago.

However, we need to understand that there is a world outside the virtual one, in which we choose to remain immersed; that we can connect more closely to people when we interact with them face to face. After all, it is an innate human tendency to respond to the warmth of another being, and feel more comfortable in somebody’s company.

We should also embrace our imperfections and celebrate who we are and what we are. So, rather than putting up a facade and being entangled in this virtual cobweb, why not be real for a while?


The article and the cover image are the compositions of aspiring computer engineer Meghna Chakrabarti. Follow her stepping stones at Tumblr and Facebook. The view shared here are her own, and she is excited to hear your opinion on how social media is impacting us. Can a computer engineer help in resolving the conundrum? The blog was originally published on her personal Tumblr page on 22nd December 2018. Here, republished with permission.


We publish using the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license so that users can read, download and reuse text and data for free – provided the authors, illustrators, and the primary sources are given appropriate credit.

‘Pain-Drug-Pain Repeat’ – The Catch-22 of Addiction

The Cobweb Of Addiction. Ipsa Wonders

At some point in our lives, we all must have experienced pain. Do you remember the last time, this unpleasant sensation created absolute emotional havoc for you? However, why does our body need to feel pain? Aren’t we better off without it?

If we draw parallels, the mechanism causing pain is quite comparable to the pipeline during wartime correspondence. Although, health care professionals will argue that pain is far more elegant, complex and faster.

The key players here are the site of injury (the war-front), the nerve cells (the military correspondent), your spinal cord (the operator) and Mr BIG BRAIN (the high commander).

Let’s say you placed your hand on a hot stove (please don’t do it!). Your nerve cells instantaneously gather this information. In response to it, nerve cells fire millions of signals to the spinal cord. This information is then relayed to our brain to make you feel the pain and alerts you to pull your hand away in split seconds, which saves your hand from any further burning.

What a painful save, isn’t it? However, this bugger pain will stay with you for sometime to come.

Many Players Are Invoved To Make You Feel The Pain. http://www.dreamstime.com

When we think of pain, most of us think of acute pain, which is common and often a temporary condition. With acute pain, you typically know where and why it hurts. For instance, your scrapped knee bothers you, or you feel the pain at the site of an incision, post-surgery. The chronic pain, on the other hand, is defined as pain that lasts more than 12 weeks, sometimes even the whole lifetime. This kind of pain in many cases persists, even when the damage is completely healed or may arise without any initial injury.

The phantom of chronic pain has crumpled one in five of us, i.e., a total of 1.5 billion people around the globe. Leading a meaningful life with chronic pain is taxing, and seems to depend on the patient’s will and assistance from healthcare professionals.

Additionally, these are the patients who are most prone to fall victim to long term drug abuse, in a desperate attempt to find relief. To seek a solution for these patients, it is critical to understand what could trigger pain and addiction, and if these two are co-dependent.

A recent joint study, lead by Lisa R. LaRowe , at the Binghamton and Syracuse University, New York looked into this matter closely.

The group looked at results from over 100 studies on pain and substance abuse. They integrated these two parameters (pain and addiction due to substance abuse), as an empirical inquiry into a reciprocal mathematical model. This way, they could prove that pain and substance abuse interact in the manner of a positive feedback loop, i.e., greater the pain a person experiences greater the maintenance of addiction over time.

This might seem intuitive, however, so far researchers have only examined either how substance use affects pain or how pain affects substance use, separately. This kind of modelling for the first time stitch together two different types of research to demonstrate how pain and substance use affect one another.

It is like a never-ending vicious cycle. While substance abuse can be a potential risk factor for chronic pain, experiencing pain can motivate people to be dependent on substances harder to quit.

This study will be especially important for the cases, where the clinicians treating addictions, might help their patients managing underlying chronic pain or for those patients who self-medicate to cope with pain. Providing their patient’s alternative health strategies could assist their patients to combat substance abuse and cope with pain.

Following up with this study, it will be now up to the biochemists and neuroscientists to understand the underlining mechanism and potential proteins underneath this co-dependency, so as to develop treatments to break this loop.


The cover image is made by a science communicator friend, Ipsa Jain. She uses arts and design to start conversations about science. Ipsawonders is one woman labor of love. She wants to create beautiful things that speak science


We publish using the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license so that users can read, download and reuse text and data for free – provided the authors, illustrators, and the primary sources are given appropriate credit.

To be or not to be a vegan…

“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”

― Albert Einstein, in a personal letter to a friend in 1954
To be or not to be vegan. Meghna Chakrabarti

Why are people fascinated by being a strict herbivore? Is this just another fad lifestyle choice, or there is some solid reasoning behind Einstein’s love for his soya chunks?

I’ve to be honest, I’m very skeptical about this quote (like most of the quotes from the pool of WWW). However, it’s unavoidable to not dig more into the latest ‘ism’ in town- this time the Veganism.

The contending argument is, widespread dietary changes are needed if we’re to combat the range of health problems, and the environmental damage caused by modern day industrial farming.

Before we pick up our sides, we must evaluate our options! So, here comes science to our rescue.

A study, in Science Magazine, published a large data-set based on almost 40,000 farms in 119 countries and covering 40 food products that represent 90% of what we eat.

The authors assessed the gross impact of these foods, from farms to our plates, on land use, climate change emissions, freshwater use and water pollution (eutrophication) and air pollution (acidification). Therefore, putting forward the evidence, supporting that “a vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to protect our planet Earth”.

Larger ecological footprint left behind industrial farming of the livestock. It provides just 18% of calories but takes up 83% of farmland. http://www.pixabay.com

The author in an interview with The Guardian argued, that the benefits might even be, “ far bigger than cutting down on our flights or buying an electric car”. As it is not just bringing down the greenhouse gases, but also global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.

Several headlines were made last year. Consequently, the number of vegans just in the UK exceeds 3.5 million, which is ~ 7% of the population. These figures indicate that veganism has seen a 700% growth in less than 2 years. If a similar trend is adopted by other nations, multitude of environmental problems in the agriculture industry might be curtailed down.

However, selling the idea to the meat-eaters globally is a tricky trade, and often we confront a dilemma – how would our body react to this switch? Is cutting out animal products the only way out ?

Following increased demand for food, most of the modern farms are now large enterprises. These are run with the intention to maximise profits. They often require higher uses of fertilisers (nitrogen based and synthetic oil-based), as well as pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals. These practices although seen as highly productive, but hidden costs underlie them.

Rather than being lured by the goading to eat more of plant-based foods under the umbrella of industrial farming, we should also be encouraging sustainable forms of meat and dairy products based on methods like rotational systems, permanent pasture and conservation grazing.

In this context, organic farming is gaining the glamour, despite the higher prices. A paper published in Nature Plants reviewed the performance of organic farming vs current farming methods. Four key sustainability metrics: productivity, environmental impact, economic viability and social wellbeing were evaluated.

Preliminary data suggests organic food is supposedly healthier, more natural and more ethical. However, there is no consensus on what do we even mean when we say organic. Pros and cons of this method still need more validation.

So, what is deemed kosher? How do we feed and nourish 7.7 billion people without destroying the planet we call home?

Moving forward, sustainable farming systems with balanced dietary habits are the only way out. When it comes to the establishment of sustainable farming, the grass is not greener on the other side. No single agriculture and animal husbandry systems can safely feed the planet.

Sustainable agriculture can feed the world without killing it. http://www.mnn.com

We need researchers and policymakers, to lay the foundation of sensible agriculture. This will require:

  1. State of the art research bodies and educational units
  2. Enforcement of appropriate environmental rules
  3. Restoring farm programs that do not prioritise the production of artificially cheap livestock feed over fair prices to crop farmers

Most importantly, we need to empower our citizens, who can make a conscious choice to navigate out of this conundrum, because at the turn of the century our species won’t have the luxury to toss and decide ‘To be a vegan or not to be’.


The cover image for this post is made by an aspiring computer artist Meghna Chakrabarti. Follow her stepping stones at Tumblr and Facebook.

We publish using the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license so that users can read, download and reuse text and data for free – provided the authors, illustrators, and the primary sources are given appropriate credit.

Am I privileged to be multi-lingual?

On a nondescript day, maybe I was 7 that time, I walked the few steps home from my new school, and found my Dad bouncing around in the middle of our living room and hugging my Ma. The reason for the excitement was yet another UN Job. My tiny brain in a rapid-fire fashion learned we were moving again.

Multilingual Children. http://www.shutterstock.com

Being a daughter of a diplomat, I’ve changed at least a dozen schools. Often these relocations accompanied months of struggle to pick up a new language. So, it became an innate ‘character makeup’ to be multi-lingual for my sibling and me. As time passed, the fear of confronting yet another new language subsidised for us and was replaced by a ‘biased pride’ of multilingualism. However, what often haunts me though:

  • Does it really give us an upper hand over the monolingual children, when it comes to the brain’s executive functions?
  • Can we really deal with real-life and ever-changing academic setups any better than many?

Some studies indeed showed a slight advantage for bilinguals relative to monolinguals on tasks of attentional control (Bialystok, 2006; Bialystok, Craik, Klein, & Viswanathan, 2004).

However, a recent study at the University of Tennessee, led by Nils and Julia Jaekel argued that bilingual children do not have more advantages than monolingual children when it comes to executive functions like remembering instructions, controlling responses, and switching swiftly in between tasks.

In their study design, the scientists used a computer test (Wright and Diamond, 2014) to compare the executive function of two groups of children between the ages of 5-15 living in the German Ruhr region. The first cohort consisted of 242 children who spoke both Turkish and German, and the other group consisted of 95 children who spoke only German. They monitored the time bilingual and monolingual children required to correctly respond to computer-based problems and stimuli. The results showed no difference in the executive functions of the two groups. The researchers carefully, also considered children’s German and Turkish vocabulary size and their exposure to both languages, factors for which previous studies lacked.

So, does this mean there is no value addition in speaking more than one language? Not really!! It can very well be that the bilingual children are not necessarily more focused, speaking another language indeed opens the door to other socio-economic opportunities.

Nevertheless, it is important to extend the research further on this topic, to assist parents, teachers, recruiters and lawmakers not to overstress on the benefits of speaking a second language.

Cover image: Multilingual children. http://www.shutterstock.com

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