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Can obesity be bad for the environment?

Thursday 29 October 2009
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It may seem logical that heavier people use more resources, but the true picture involves sociology, education, healthcare and seriously challenging ethics. Giles Crosse delves deeper.

“It’s important to recognise that obesity is a chronic disease caused by a complex interaction of biological, genetic, societal, environmental, and behavioural factors. Our food environment plays an especially important role in promoting obesity.” This is the opinion of Dr. Rebecca Puhl, Research Scientist at Yale University’s Food Policy and Obesity Centre.

“Factors like urban design, public transportation availability, land use and density and location of food stores and restaurants have reduced opportunities for healthy lifestyle behaviours,” she continues. “Simply put, we have created an ideal environment in which to promote obesity.”

Puhl reckons it’s unfair and stigmatising to suggest that obese people are contributing negatively to the environment, saying we need to avoid making stereotypes that suggest overweight people are more responsible than others for environmental decline.

“A person’s bodyweight has very little to do with one’s environmental footprint – whether a person drives a small car or takes public transportation to work, recycles, buys locally grown foods, or finds other ways to conserve energy as part of their lifestyle. Blaming obese people only perpetuates the stigma and prejudice that obese persons already face, and does little to address the real environmental challenges at hand.”

Unhealthy economy

Instead, it’s more likely our consumer driver society is contributing to negative change: “Portion sizes have increased substantially,” says Puhl. “Especially for unhealthy food items. Marketing and advertising of unhealthy, energy dense foods by the food industry also increases excessive food consumption, especially for children who are strongly targeted by marketing.”

“Instead of blaming obese people, we need to address more important food related contributors to the environment, such as industrialised food production, our food distribution system, and the amount of food waste that occurs, 1/4 of the food produced in the United States is wasted – not consumed,” she says.

Professor David Haslam, Physician in Obesity Medicine and Chair for the UK National Obesity Forum, isn’t so sure, though he remains guarded: “It is true to say that obesity has a negative impact on the environment.”

“More food is being eaten, and because of increased sedentary behaviour, more car, train or bus journeys are being undertaken, whereas walking and cycling are healthier and more environmentally friendly. However, it is not acceptable to blame an individual for killing the planet, as mankind in general has created the environment in which obesity flourishes.”

“For 7 million years humans have been fighting against the odds to eat enough food to survive,” he says. “Plus the aim of conserving sufficient energy to hunt and flee danger. There has never been an instinct to stop eating any more than there has been an instinct to stop breathing. The obesity epidemic has been with us for 30 years, giving us no time to evolve such a characteristic.”

There’s no quick fix. It seems although the energy balance equation still holds true, the reasons for overeating, and the subsequent appetite regulation and metabolic ramifications are known to be astonishingly complex.

“No more scientific research is needed to teach us how to deal with the problem, unlike in, for instance oncology or cardiology,” says Haslam. “What is needed is the political will to provide leadership, organisation and resources in order to combat the problem, and the financial investment in services and environmental change today in order to reap rewards tomorrow.”

Notes not nourishment

John Tabor is Director of Operations and Fundraising at the Association for the study of Obesity (ASO). He too doesn’t think the green buck stops at the dinner table.

“No one has actually demonstrated that the obese produce a greater impact on the environment. Obesity is still linked with lower socioeconomic status. Wealth is a far greater driver of consumption, especially of expensive consumer goods, and the more money you have the more you consume.”

“Plus, many obese individuals may go out less and consequently drive less for a variety of health, social and economic reasons.  Therefore, they may actually consume less energy when everything is taken into account.”

There may be questions over food intake and resource efficiency, but these remain unproven: “The type of food consumed may also be important – meat and dairy, resource intensive, over vegetables and cereals.  Moreover, if the obese consume a greater proportion of processed food in their diet this will have an impact because of the amount of resources needed for global shipping of bulk ingredients, processing and distribution.” continues Tabor.

Cultural clash

There are yet more fundamental cultural problems involved. “The obese are more likely to be provoked to eat, irrespective of previous consumption, and are then more likely to over consume if that food is palatable.” says Tabor.

“These are highly disadvantageous traits in an environment in which highly palatable, energy dense foods are both heavily promoted and widely available. Obesity is caused by energy intake out stripping energy expenditure and a variety of situational, individual and even biological factors influence these.”

“It is the convergence of these factors, rather than any one, which has led an increased proportion of the population to become obese. Both eating behaviour and obesity have genetic components and our food choices are also learnt and reinforced from infanthood and are therefore very resistant to change.”

Green eyed monster

So many of the scientists here point to consumer society and marketing, and associated trends such as a sedentary, TV watching, advert guzzling lifestyle, as the true drivers behind the problems.

“Whilst we cannot deal with the genetic disposition to gain weight, we can deal with food promotion, habitual diet and spontaneous activity.  However, there are many vested interests here, particularly in the currently global food economy, who would be resistant to change.” concludes Tabor.

There’s an irony that were the third world starving, exposed to over abundant food, obesity brought on by lack of exercise, X boxes, TVs and Playstations, or a McDonalds on every corner would have minimal impact, as they simply don’t exist in similar density as in the West.

Clearly, there’s insufficient time to truly address the depth of these issues in this article. But if anything, the problem all too clearly illustrates how profit based consumerism, greed and exploitation, in all their guises, are at the heart of so many issues facing tomorrow’s world.

What are your views?  Add your comment below. We welcome your thoughts and proposals. Not a Planetary Citizen? Sign up

Obesity Report 2009
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Comments (4)Add Comment
Causes of obesity
April 27, 2010
Votes: +0

I think the bigger point - that is surprisingly overlooked or not being emphasized - is the fact that obese people also release more greenhouse gases through there much greater surface area and consumptive metabolism. People release CO2 through their skin as well as their lungs, and the bigger you are and the more inches of skin folds cover your mass, the more pollution you produce. So it really does add up - through greater consumption needs (i.e. more food), greater need for using energy to move (i.e. cars, elevators etc), to more production of metabolic waste - pound for pound, obesity is really a heavy burden on the environment.

20 facts on obesity
October 22, 2010
Votes: +0

No doubt exercise plays an important factor in quality of life, but most people don't exercise enough and this is one of the reason for obesity. It is the responsibility of parents to educate their children with good eating habits. I believe that we eat too much processed and convenience foods.

November 26, 2010
Votes: +0

No doubt exercise plays an important factor in quality of life, but most people don't exercise enough and this is one of the reason for obesity. It is the responsibility of parents to educate their children with good eating habits. I believe that we eat too much processed and convenience foods.

Obesity in Children
January 11, 2012
Votes: +0

Absolutely!Obesity is bad for the health.It causes many health related issue.It is really necessary to do regular exercise to stay healthy & obesity.

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