Climate Change Is Driving Up Obesity Numbers, Here’s How

Obesity is often regarded as the public health equivalent of climate change. But aside from being huge global issues, could there be a correlation between the two?

Written by Mackenzie Fox

Various studies have pointed to the connection between obesity and climate change, whilst policies with potential co-benefits to tackle both issues are already being considered.

Rising income levels and the effects of globalisation have led to a global obesity, which is in turn leading to an increase in greenhouse emissions through energy used to sustain the consumer lifestyle, and thus climate change.

To tackle these issues a global reduction is needed, backed up by policy change. Food habits must be altered and physical activity must be encouraged. Children will benefit, both mentally and physically, from spending time in nature.

Changing Food Habits

Obesity is no longer an issue that only affects richer countries, with emerging economies emulating wealthier ones by consuming more energy and becoming less physically active on the way to industrialization. Since 1980, worldwide obesity has more than doubled. In fact, for the first time in history the world has more overweight than underweight people.

We have seen rising incomes and the effects of globalisation lead to a common shift in food habits all over the world, including excessive sugar, salt, and fat intake, low fruit and vegetable intake, and the growing problem of obesity. An increase in the availability of processed foods, such as from fast food chains, combined with changes in lifestyle (sedentary jobs, lack of physical activity, use of transport, use of nonrenewable energy resources) and media influences with food and beverage advertisement have all contributed to the problem.

Image: Instagram

Studies have shown that those in developed countries largely gain their nutritional energy from fat and carbohydrates, with considerable contribution of dairy and meat, whereas in low income countries the contributions from meat and dairy are negligible. A diet high in meat consumption is associated with a higher risk of obesity, with one study stating that participants consuming high amounts of meat were almost 27% more likely to be obese.

What we have seen is that urbanization, rising incomes, and population growth has also led to an unprecedented rate of growth in the world's livestock sector, with annual meat production projected to grow from 218 million tonnes in 1997-1999, to 376 million tonnes by 2030. Needless to say, animal agriculture is responsible for many detrimental changes in our environment.

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How Does Obesity Affect Climate Change?

Not only is obesity bad for your health, but also studies have shown that it is bad for the health of the planet. As waistlines expand, additional resources are needed to nourish, cool and transport the added weight.

A heavier body requires more food to be sustained, and this will have a direct impact on the amount of food being produced. In some countries, such as the UK, the food industry is the biggest single source of greenhouse emissions. This includes production, manufacture, distribution and the waste it generates.

Of course, what you eat is just as important as how much you eat. Globally, the livestock sector is accountable for roughly 15% of all human greenhouse gas emissions, which is roughly equivalent to all the direct emissions from transportation. Of all livestock emissions, beef and dairy alone make up 65%.

Image: Thinkstock

While diet is a big contributing factor to obesity, you also need to consider lack of physical activity. This increasingly sedentary nature comes down to several different factors. This includes office jobs, modes of transportation, increasing urbanization and lifestyle trends. For example, coming late from work and picking up something from a fast food restaurant for dinner, watching a favourite late night show with bowls filled to the brim with ice cream is certainly not going to help us be any leaner. The reality is, many people have turned into couch potatoes.

New technologies, including cars, labour-saving devices and computers are changing what people do for transportation, work and leisure. As people are driven toward motorized transportation, we see an increase in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And all of these different factors are contributing to climate change.

Is the Problem Getting Worse?

It has recently been suggested that climate change, and its effect on food production, could actually worsen the global obesity crisis. While at this stage the relationship is highly speculative, the theory looks at links between the price of food, "food insecurity", and obesity.

Scientist say there is enough evidence to state that climate change is affecting food production both on land and sea. If climate change and a growing demand for food leads to a rise in food prices, then this can in turn lead to food insecurity.

Food insecurity is the perception of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. This perception is thought to lead to unhealthy food choices, when people are faced with the prospect of not having enough food. Rather than it being an issue of hunger, it is thought to be more of a psychological effect. It is believed that this is caused by the relationship between climate change and food price. When the food prices go up, the poor will start consuming high-calorie foods because it's cheaper. It is paradox, however, that this creates obesity rather than under nutrition.

As food prices increase, people will reach for added sugars, vegetable fats and refined grains. Logically, we would see these foods replace healthier options amongst the poor since they would be hit the hardest when food prices soar. Of course, as food habits worsen, obesity becomes more of a problem.

What You Can Do

As the technical report by the Obesity Working Group suggests, tackling the obesity epidemic is all about reshaping behaviours, beginning with children. It will take individuals and families, governments, communities, non-government organisations, industry and health services to all be actively involved in order to achieve long-term and sustainable change.

For individuals and families, the focus will be on improving eating habits and levels of physical activity. Educating children on making the right food choices and encouraging more exercise will be vital steps in order to halt and reverse the rise in overweight and obesity. This will not only impact food production, but also greenhouse emissions caused by other sedentary lifestyle habits.

For sustained weight loss, leading doctors suggest that following a Mediterranean diet may be better than low-fat diets and calorie counting. A Mediterranean diet is based on eating mainly plant-based foods, including vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, whole grains, and olive oil.

Image: Associated Press

It also features lean sources of protein, such as fish and poultry, over red meat. This is important as switching from beef to chicken or pork could reduce diet-related greenhouse gas emissions by more than 40%.

Studies have shown there to be an undeniable link between the obesity epidemic and climate change. In order to tackle both of these issues, individuals and governments will have to work together to achieve long-term and sustainable change. The focus will need to be on changing food habits, as well as increasing levels of physical activity.

Written by Mackenzie Fox

Banner Image: Shutterstock

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