Hesperian Health Guides

New Foods, New Problems

Factory-made foods such as packaged biscuits and snacks, colas and other sweet, bottled drinks are now available all over the world. These foods are very common in urban areas, and most rural people can get at least some of them. And most people have come to like their sweet or salty flavors. Often we like them so much we eat or drink them every day, and give them to our children instead of real food.

chips, candy and coca cola

Candy, cola, and packaged snacks have too much salt, sugar, fat, chemical preservatives, and colorings. These unhealthy ingredients cause problems over time such as rotten teeth, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. These foods also lack the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and proteins of unprocessed, locally-made foods. For these reasons, they are called junk foods.

Cans of food and packaged noodles and soup

Factory-made white breads, canned foods, biscuits, and packaged crackers or noodles may seem as healthy as the fresh, home-cooked versions of these foods. Advertising tells us they are. But they are usually filled with too much unhealthy sugar, salt, and chemicals. And they lack the nutrients we get from home-cooked foods. They are also junk foods, just like candy and packaged snacks.

Two women buying fresh vegetables at a market stall
Healthy food comes from the earth, not a factory.

Diabetes and heart disease: diseases of the new food system

Two overweight women sitting down, working at a sewing machine

Diabetes and heart disease are health problems caused by the change in how people eat and work. They are rare where people still gather, grow, and cook their own food, and work as farmers or artisans. But as more people have less control of their work and get a limited amount of physical exercise (working in factories or in front of a computer, for example) and they rely more on factory-made foods, these diseases become more common. They are not caused by germs, nor are they contagious. They are caused by a lack of activity, reliance on junk food, and increased stress and inequality in our lives. Our bodies do not work well in these conditions.

While diabetes and heart disease are very different diseases, they share many of the same causes. Each of these diseases can cause the other, and many of the ways to treat and prevent each disease are also the same.

A fat man


Diabetes is a problem in which the body does not use sugars in food properly. It can lead to blindness, loss of limbs, coma, or even death. For more on the different types of diabetes and how to treat them, see the chapter Diabetes.

Diabetes has become extremely common in rich countries like the US, and is now growing more common all over the world. Its food-related causes include eating too much, eating unhealthy foods, and a lack of exercise. Wherever factory-made, white flour and high sugar foods take over, diabetes follows.

Heart disease and heart attacks

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Heart attack

These are different parts of what is really one health problem: heart disease. Unhealthy food and a lack of exercise (along with smoking and stress) cause fat to build up inside the blood vessels. As a result, the heart must pump harder to force the blood through these thickened vessels causing high blood pressure. The heart grows tired and weak from all this effort. Blood which cannot flow freely clots up, and the heart, exhausted and without a flow of blood, stops working, causing a heart attack.

(Rheumatic heart disease is another common cause of heart disease. It comes from having had rheumatic fever as a child.)

Four girls having fun playing a game of basketball
Treatment and prevention

There are many things we can do as individuals and in our families to prevent and treat diabetes and heart disease. But changes at a community and national level are also necessary.

Exercise: Fast walking, dancing, sports, or any exercise that speeds up your heart rate for 30 minutes or more a day is needed for every system in your body to function well. Exercise strengthens bones, gives a feeling of energy, improves mood, and helps you live longer. It is an essential way to prevent and treat both diabetes and heart disease.

Food: A diet with plenty of fresh vegetables, whole grains, and beans is best both for preventing and treating heart disease and diabetes.

  • Red meats, dairy, and eggs are healthy foods, but if eaten in every meal or even every day, they make heart disease more likely. So eat them a few times a week or less.
  • Sweets and processed white starches are not needed at all, and eating them every day can lead to diabetes.
  • Fat is needed in small amounts but leads to both heart disease and diabetes if eaten in large amounts. Red meat, palm oil, deep-fried food, and factory foods are the main unhealthy sources of fat. Try to eat less of these. Nuts, avocados, and fish are healthy sources of fat and provide other nutrients too, so are better choices.
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  • Salt can also worsen heart disease if eaten in large amounts. If you have heart disease or high blood pressure, avoid salty, packaged foods. Canned foods almost always contain too much salt. When flavoring your food, use only a little salt, or use herbs or spices instead.

Coke and other bottled and canned sweet drinks are particularly unhealthy. They are basically just water and sugar, with chemicals added for color and flavor. Drinking these every day can cause or worsen diabetes, rot the teeth, and fill you up with nothing good.

If you are fat: Losing weight protects you from both diabetes and heart disease. Losing weight gradually is safer than losing a lot of weight in a short time. The healthiest, most long-lasting way to lose weight is to exercise often (5 days a week or more) and to eat modest-sized meals. Try to avoid the unhealthy foods listed above.

Quitting smoking is another way to live longer and better. Quitting will protect you from heart disease, diabetes, and also from cancer. For more on the dangers of smoking, see Drugs, Alcohol, and Tobacco (in development).

Health is a community issue

What we eat and how we live our lives are partly results of our own choices, but they are also results of what foods, jobs, and housing are available and affordable. We can try to develop healthy eating and exercise habits, but our choices are often limited. For example, what we want to eat and if we have time to prepare good foods are the results of many things that are difficult for one person to control: advertising, how our work is organized, and whether we have access to clean water and a good kitchen. These conditions are shared by large numbers of people and can be changed only by collective action or through government policy.

A group of people with placards saying "Save our farms" and "No expensive imported foods

Actions for change can have a narrow focus, such as banning Coke and sugary drinks from schools, or providing healthy school lunches to all students. Activities can be city-wide such as free daily exercise classes which are offered by the city of Bangkok, Thailand, or the Ciclovía story below. National and local policies can be made to favor small farmers and local markets instead of policies that support profits for large agricultural companies. To successfully prevent and treat diabetes and heart disease, changes must be won on all these levels.


The people of Bogota, Colombia (an enormous city in South America) were fed up with dangerous, crowded streets and polluted air. With leadership from a forward-thinking city official, they decided to do something about it: they would take back parts of their city from cars and trucks and make it more livable for people. The city got rid of hundreds of parking spots, built over 300 kilometers of paths for bicycles, and limited the number of cars allowed on the road during busy times.

Their most exciting invention (now copied in cities around the world) is Ciclovía: Every Sunday, the main streets are closed to cars. Bicycle riders, skaters, wheelchair riders, and walkers take over. In the parks, dance and exercise classes are offered for free. Bicycles are loaned at no cost.

Though organized to solve a serious problem, Ciclovía is fun. It is a weekly party to which everyone in the city is invited. Children and grandparents dance together in the parks and people of all ages bike, skate, and run through the normally traffic-clogged streets. It is a fun way to get exercise, meet neighbors and coworkers, and make new friends. It is a different and better way to live city life.

At first, some businesses were opposed to the idea because they thought it would create traffic jams and interfere with shopping. But Ciclovía was so popular that they stopped complaining. Now people in Bogota are looking for more ways to make their city safer, healthier, and more fun, 7 days a week.
A large group of happy people cycling, walking, running, and using wheelchairs in the street

This page was updated:10 Jun 2019