Is the obesity epidemic an environmental issue?

In a previous post about fast food toys being banned I said I’d be back with more on healthy eating and the obesity issue. First I thought I should point out some of the connections between obesity and green living…

There are some pretty out-there reports that say things like, “People who are overweight are creating climate problems.” Without more solid research I wouldn’t go that far myself, but I do think green living is directly related to healthy living and part of healthy living is healthy eating and exercise both of which in turn, result in fewer incidences of unhealthy, overweight kids. It’s all connected.

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Unhealthy food choices impact the environment and your health…

Food waste is a big issue: According to a BBC report, the continuing trend to eat out more and the rise of convenience food has increased the amount of food being grown and transported. Since markets over plan to over meet demand, a whopping 30-40% of all food in the UK is never eaten and the amount tossed is £20 billion pounds of food overall. The USA is no better by the way. The Environmental Protection Agency recently estimated that Americans generate roughly 30 million tons of food waste each year. Food grown and not eaten means more pesticides used unnecessarily to grow said food, energy to process, food packaging to contend with, gas to transport, and rotting food sitting in landfills (very little is composted) releases loads of methane, the most potent greenhouse gas.

Food waste is also a major water issue. According to Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), “Reducing food wastage by 50% – including post-harvest losses, losses in transport and handling, and losses in the household – might vastly reduce or even negate the need for additional water to grow more food, which will ensure sufficient water is available for food in the future.

Meat: You might think meat eaters weigh more in general than vegetarians but most research says nope (although I swear I was continually five pounds slimmer as a vegetarian). Some research shows that meat does make it easier to become overweight though, especially if you eat a lot of the wrong kind of meat. Fatty meats can result in quite a bit of excess body fat and even an early death. Even if you stay slim on a meat diet, meat is still a poor choice in many respects for your health. For example, red meats and processed meats are linked to health issues like hypertension and high cholesterol which can lead to weight related issues because of health complications that make it hard to exercise.

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Meat is also a major downer for the planet. Meat production results in extensive water use. SIWI notes that agriculture is the largest consumer of freshwater by far – about 70% of all freshwater withdrawals go to irrigated agriculture and part of the current pressure on water resources comes from increasing demands for animal feed. Meat production requires 8-10 times more water than cereal production. Shockingly SIWI also notes that producing 1 kg of meat requires as much water as an average domestic household uses in over 10 months. Meat creates so many other eco-problems that it would take me pages here to cover it all, so if you’re interested check out Sustainable Table.

Green eating is healthy eating:  To me the basics of green eating include..

  • Fewer processed foods.
  • Eating foods closer to the earth and lower on the food chain such as fresh organic produce and brown rice or beans from the bulk food section.
  • Cooking more from scratch; including treats.
  • Buying seasonal and local food.
  • Not eating fast food that comes with plastic toys and wasteful packaging galore.
  • Eating very little to no meat.
  • Buying foods that have labels I understand – i.e. not ingredients that sound like they were made by mad scientists in some crazy lab.

All of the above are ways you can eat green and in turn eat healthy. It’s healthy to skip fast food, healthy to eat more grains and veggies than meat, healthy to cook and avoid chemicals. All of this is not only green but helpful if you’d like to maintain a healthy weight.

Unhealthy activity choices impact the environment and your health…

Transportation is at an all-time high: Many years ago people walked, or walked more for sure, both helping their health and the planet. In the United States alone, three-quarters of carbon monoxide (CO) emissions come from cars and trucks and partially from non-road engines (such as boats and construction equipment). While legal control measures have helped to reduce emissions per vehicle the EPA notes that the number of cars and trucks on the road and the miles they are driven have doubled in the past 20 years. Even with better emission standards driving everywhere still creates massive pollution problems.

It cycles right back to us too. As people decrease their physical activity due to the conveniences of cars they can gain weight. As people gain weight exercise become harder, resulting in more sedentary behavior, which in turns increases the need for a car to get places vs. say a bike or your legs. Sadly, CO even at low levels may cause chest pain and reduce your ability to exercise – pollution from cars and trucks is a serious and cycling health and eco-issue. Biking, walking and even public transportation (at least some of the time) are healthier and greener transportation choices.

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Nature – green, healthy and won’t make you fat:

Nature is a little too ignored for my liking as a green issue. Getting kids outside and active is not only amazingly healthy but helps them form their early opinions about nature – hopefully that nature is worth conserving. When kids are overweight they don’t get to enjoy nature as easily. I’ve seen overweight kids try to hike or even just run at the park and it’s harder for them and they don’t seem to enjoy it as much as the fit kids I see in the same situation.

Of all the families I know, none who make a point of taking their kids out into nature or green spaces often and from an early age have overweight kids. Is there a connection? I can’t prove it but I believe it. Making sure kids get fresh air, exercise and plenty of playtime outside is green and healthy.

Do you think that the obesity epidemic is related to environmental issues? How so?

[graph image via NRDC]

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  1. [...] no one, me especially is saying that the childhood obesity epidemic doesn’t matter. It’s a HUGE deal. But, to blame working mamas seems like yet another [...]

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