Overweight and underwater: obesity and climate change

By Matt Field, February 4, 2019

Credit: Matt Field. Based in part on images by Evan Swigart, FeastingMadeEasy / Lili, and NickSS from London (all CC BY 2.0).Credit: Matt Field. Based in part on images by Evan Swigart, FeastingMadeEasy / Lili, and NickSS from London (all CC BY 2.0).

A prominent medical commission has linked what it calls the “pandemics” of climate change, obesity, and poor nutrition in a mash-up of interacting, mega-bad trends they’re calling “The Global Syndemic.” A new report out last week by the Lancet Commission on Obesity points a finger at policy makers and corporate lobbying interests, among other factors, for creating underlying conditions that are threatening health, the environment, and the economy the world over.

The commission argues that the three pandemics share common root causes and are occurring at the same time in the same places, meaning that they represent a “synergy of epidemics”—hence the name “The Global Syndemic.” Those drivers include: politicians unable or unwilling to change the status quo, lobbying groups that don’t want change, and a public that doesn’t seem to care. With this new report, the commission, a partnership of The Lancet, the World Obesity Federation, George Washington University, and the University of Auckland, expanded on its mandate to address obesity.

“The Commission calls these three pandemics The Global Syndemic to emphasize the major global importance of this cluster of pandemics,” the report states, “which are now, and will be into the foreseeable future, the dominant causes of human and environmental (i.e., planetary) ill-health.”

Aside from the human and environmental toll, the global syndemic exerts an enormous economic impact. According to the report, so-called “under-nutrition” results in about a $3- to-$5-trillion economic loss each year; obesity, meanwhile, costs the world about $2 trillion per year. Not addressing climate change could cost the world between 5- to-10 percent of global gross domestic product.

Obesity is linked to climate change. Climate change is associated with greater food insecurity caused by lower food production, higher levels of disease, and more civil unrest, among other factors. How this food insecurity will affect people in different countries, the report states, depends on the severity of the problem: “Severe food insecurity and hunger are associated with lower obesity prevalence, but mild to moderate food insecurity is paradoxically associated with higher obesity prevalence among vulnerable populations.”

And the relationship between obesity and climate change is not a one-way street; it is not necessarily the case that climate change comes first, followed by food insecurity, and then greater levels of obesity. “Countries transitioning from lower to higher incomes experience rapid urbanization and shifts towards motorized transportation, with consequent lower physical activity, higher prevalence of obesity, and higher greenhouse-gas emissions,” the report states.

Obesity affected an estimated 2 billion people in 2015, according to the report. As it’s tied to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other conditions, it’s one of the greatest public health threats around the world.

“There has been an unabated rise in the obesity prevalence in all countries in the past four decades and no country has succeeded in reversing its obesity epidemic,” the authors write, citing a “slow and inconsistent” implementation of the recommendations by “authoritative national and international organizations” like the World Health Organization.

The report cites under-nutrition—one of the pandemics it lumps in with climate change and obesity—as still a significant problem, and suggests it will be exacerbated by climate change.

How to solve the problem? Achieving what the report calls a “win-win-win” on all three pandemics will be difficult. The authors give the example of national dietary guidelines which seek to reduce obesity and under-nutrition. These guidelines could also take into account sustainability “by moving populations towards consuming largely plant-based diets.” Powerful lobbies, however, have stymied these efforts, and only handful of countries, including Sweden and Qatar, have guidelines that “promote environmentally sustainable diets.”

Given that corporate interests are able to bring numerous resources to bear on the policy-making process, governments that hope to reduce that influence—one of the key recommendations in the report—face a stark challenge.

“The fossil fuel and food industries that are responsible for driving The Global Syndemic receive more than $5 trillion in annual subsidies from governments,” the report states. “The commission recommends that governments redirect these subsidies into more sustainable energy, agricultural, and food system practices.”


Publication Name: The Lancet Commission on Obesity
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Kathryn Hayman
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Kathryn Hayman

This is the greatest tragedy and the greatest insanity of our non-representative governments. Trillions to the rich to trash the world while the weak and powerless live out the horrific consequences (and I’m including wildlife). When are all of us — including the scientists who measure all this — going to get to the barricades? This will not change until there is a huge and worldwide serious uprising against the 1 %