Tackling obesity – and malnourishment

Hugo Melgar-Quiñonez

One in eight humans goes to bed every night hungry. But that’s only part of the food-security puzzle, says Hugo Melgar-Quiñonez. Among poorer populations the world over, “Many people’s bellies are full, but with empty calories.”

Melgar-Quiñonez should know: the McGill Institute for Global Food Security’s first director is a double doctor. His PhD and experience working at Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health combined with his time as a physician in Germany gives him a holistic view of food insecurity, a complex problem, he says.

Appointed in September 2012, Melgar-Quiñonez’s hire comes thanks to a generous $1.5-million donation from businesswoman Margaret A. Gilliam, BSc’59. She says she is delighted to play a part in what she calls “a worldwide problem that requires our immediate attention.”

Gilliam’s gift will support research, teaching and graduate fellowships at the McGill Institute for Global Food Security, widely recognized as Canada’s leading multidisciplinary teaching and research centre on the issue. McGill’s fifth Global Food Security Conference, which draws scholars to speak and network from around the world, was held in fall 2012.

Hunger is one thing, but it’s not the whole story, says Melgar-Quiñonez, whose research is a key piece of the food-security puzzle. Everywhere, he explains, citizens are “bombarded by new products, and don’t understand that the nice packaging doesn’t necessarily mean it is food they should be consuming.” The overabundance of oily starches, attractive for their low cost, leads to what he calls food insecurity’s “double burden”: both undernourished and obese people, even within the same household.

The problem now exists around the globe, he adds. Poorer countries, however, will not have the resources to handle the deferred epidemic cheap but empty calories create: obesity-related problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, already prevalent in Western countries.

Melgar-Quiñonez hopes the efforts of the McGill Institute for Global Food Security will help to head those problems off at the pass. “One of the things we need to convey out of the McGill Institute is that nutrition education is key to promoting food security,” he says. “This is a passion of mine.”