Article Planet Earth

The obesity epidemic: killing ourselves, killing our planet?

The global rise in obesity has profound implications not just for people's health, but also for the environment

Obesity is both a large and growing problem. Global obesity levels have more than doubled since 1980. There are now as many as 600 million obese adults in the world, amounting to 13% of the adult population. The adverse health effects of this epidemic are well documented. But obesity also has super-sized environmental implications. The ecological threat posed by overpopulation is often recognised. Combine a growing population in terms of numbers and a growing population in terms of waistlines, and we might be looking at a perfect storm for climate disaster.

Obesity and consumption: two sides of the same coin?

The compulsion to consume is a natural one; we need to consume to fulfil our basic human needs. But the development of consumer capitalism has accelerated that basic compulsion to an all-encompassing desire for new products and services, many of which go far beyond needs and are entirely superfluous. The (largely) unchallenged underlying assumption of our socioeconomic system is that of ever-increasing levels of both production and consumption. The undisputed measure of the health of nations is GDP, ie the monetary worth of all the goods and services produced (and by extension consumed).

Status within society is often conferred based on the amount of wealth we have and how ostentatious our displays of consumption. The ultimate status symbols, such as private jets and huge yachts, have a massive carbon footprint – both to produce and to maintain – especially for a single person. However, when it comes to obesity, poor people are often twice as likely as the rich to be affected. This is no doubt thanks to relative lack of education among poorer households and the unhealthy nature of cheap convenience foods.

But could it also be partly down to an overcompensation for lack of consumption in other areas? We are bombarded with thousands of messages every day telling us to consume: from cars to designer clothes and, of course, food. Food in developed countries is today, relatively speaking, cheaper than it’s ever been. Spending on food is therefore the cheapest way to satisfy the compulsion to consume more, bigger and faster, which we are seemingly programmed to do by the advertising industry and the underlying logic of consumerism.

As developing nations seek to emulate the consumptive habits of the developed world, obesity levels are soaring to giddying heights, with a report by the Overseas Development Institute citing rising incomes, urbanisation and the effect of advertising and the media on diets, as key factors.

Climate change: what’s food got to do with it?

Between 19% and 29% of total global emissions are created by food production, and a whopping three-quarters of deforestation is a result of agriculture. Deforestation itself accounts for up to 18% of total global emissions, which is more than the entire transportation sector. It’s therefore not hard to see the causal link between how much food is produced and consumed and how much pollution is caused. Obviously, obese people consume significantly more food than people who are a healthy weight, and as such, they contribute a relatively higher level of emissions.

However, it’s not simply about the amount of food that obese people consume, the types of food that make up their diets also play a crucial role in the level of emissions. You are much more likely to be overweight or obese if you have a meat-heavy diet; one study found 33% of meat-eaters were obese compared to 17% of vegetarians and 9% of vegans. Conversely, a meat-heavy diet has a carbon footprint nearly twice the size of a vegetarian one. The diet of obese people also tends to be characterised by a prevalence of processed foods, which unsurprisingly – given the different processes involved, the extra refrigeration and heating methods used – create more emissions than non-processed foods.

A separate report looked at the increased energy needs of a relatively obese population, compared to that with leaner BMI. It compared a population of a billion people with a 40% obesity rate (similar to the level of the US) to that of a billion people with a 3.5% obesity rate (similar to the level of Vietnam) and found that the food energy requirements would be 19% higher in the former than the latter.

Obesity’s climate impact goes beyond food

While the contribution of extra emissions implied by the excess consumption of food by obese people is a significant factor in contributing to an increased carbon footprint, consuming more food is not the only way that obesity has a detrimental environmental impact. Another factor boils down to simple physics. The heavier you are the more energy that is required to move you around, whether that is energy produced from consuming food or, for instance, that used to power a car. The latter is significant. Obese people tend to have more sedentary lifestyles and rely upon carbon-heavy forms of transport such as cars.

Because of these cumulative impacts of obesity, a report in 2012 argued convincingly that in terms of planetary energy requirements (and thus climate impact) it may be more useful to think of the total human biomass than the number of people. That is to say, the combined mass of the world’s population, not the population numbers, are what determine the level of consumption and emissions. The report noted that North America has just 6% of the world’s population, but accounts for a staggering 34% of the global biomass due to obesity, compared with south Asia, which has 61% of the population but contains only 13% of the biomass that is due to obesity.

Fat-shaming is not the answer

Those suffering from obesity are already chastised enough for their defection from our warped skinny beauty norms and for the drain they place on public health services; to further burden them with the charge that they also have a greater negative environmental impact is likely to be counter-productive. Despite certain narratives to the contrary, obesity cannot be simply blamed on poor individual choices. The sheer proliferation of obesity seems to suggest there is more going on.

Although removing the element of individual choice entirely would be fruitless and ultimately disempowering for many trying to make positive changes, it is essential we consider the context within which those choices are made. For starters, despite the seemingly endless options open to consumers, the amount of different food products available is misleading. For instance, in the US there are reportedly more than 600,000 food items available, 80% of which contain added sugar. Diets high in sugar are being increasingly cited as the primary cause of obesity, rather than lack of exercise. What’s more, food choices are limited by budget, healthy foods tend to be more expensive and as such, poorer consumers are left with limited choices, hence obesity being more prevalent among the rich than the poor, in the developed world at least.

Not only is individual choice limited in these ways, consumers are also not given adequate information to make informed choices. Food labelling has improved, but still leaves much to be desired. Perhaps the carbon footprint of food items should be mandatory on food labelling. Add to the mix a consistent campaign of disinformation by the highly influential food industry, not to mention the aggressive advertising and marketing of said industry, and you have an environment where it is very difficult for individuals to always make healthy and environmentally friendly choices.

A shocking recent example of the food industry’s lobbying tactics saw them put up a dummy website for the film about obesity, Fed Up, reportedly buying up Google ads for search terms related to the film in order to redirect users who were looking for information on the picture. The site features a bogus quiz with highly skewed pro-food industry answers. The makers of the film are not the only ones to draw the comparison between the lobbying tactics of the food industry and big tobacco companies, described by authors of a recent report on obesity as “chillingly similar”.

There’s no denying that obesity is a massive problem, both for public health and the environment. But shaming and blaming individuals is likely to only exacerbate the issue. Instead, we need to take a serious look at our societal priorities, shifting away from the paradigm that ever-increasing levels of production and consumption are a desirable thing. It says a lot about how poorly we organise our society that every day hundreds if not thousands of people die from the effects of overeating, while still more die from the effects of undernourishment.

We also need to make a sober assessment of our diets and their carbon footprint, reducing the amount of processed and meat-based food we eat drastically, which will require a major cultural shift. And of course, it means taking on the power of vested interests within the food industry and beyond. Ultimately, we should be empowering individuals and society at large to make healthier and more environmentally friendly choices, not placing blame on the dinner table of the overweight.

Image courtesy of Colby Stopa via Flickr. Used under CC licence.

This article is a response to the topic idea; We live on a beautiful planet– how do we stop our consumption destroying it?.

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