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Do Obese People Aggravate Global Warming?

Posted: Thursday, May 22, 2008

Researchers say obesity epidemic threatens environment, and an additional 250 million tons of greenhouse gases may be released every year to sustain an ever more obese population. The obesity experts condemned this letter in Lancet. 

The letter, submitted by researchers from the United Kingdom, implicates the rising tide of obesity in greater oil consumption, more food production -- and, ultimately, in an increase in the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

"It is a significant contribution," said Phil Edwards, co-author of the letter and senior statistician at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom.

"Eighteen percent more food energy is required in many populations where there is a large prevalence of obesity," he said, citing a 460-calorie increase in daily food intake for an obese individual. "There is a clear impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in order to grow that food."

Edwards and colleague Ian Roberts wrote in the letter that "more transportation fuel energy will be used to transport the increased mass of the obese population, which will increase even further if, as is likely, the overweight people in response to their increased body mass choose to walk less and drive more."

But more troubling, some said, was the stigma that could arise from the suggestion that those who are obese pose a greater environmental burden than their slimmer counterparts.

Edwards maintains the rationale for his calculations is solid. Out of the roughly 6 billion people alive today, about one billion live in developed countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. It is in such countries that obesity rates are the highest. Edwards and his colleagues created a hypothetical model of these 1 billion people using the U.K. population as a template.

The researchers then divided the total amount of greenhouse gases generated by the world's population -- about 42 billion tons -- equally among the world's population. By this method, each billion-person segment would be responsible for about 7 billion tons of greenhouse gases every year. Edwards estimated that one-fifth of these greenhouse gases are generated through food production -- in total, about 1.4 billion tons.

But assuming that roughly 40 percent of this population is overweight or obese -- the current figures in the United Kingdom -- the 18 percent increase in food demand means that the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted through food production climbs to 1.66 billion tons.

According to these figures, an additional 250 million tons of greenhouse gases may be released every year to sustain an ever more obese population.

"As the population is becoming heavier, more food energy is required in order to maintain that mass," Edwards said. "This is not pointing the finger at people with a BMI [body mass index] over 30. ... I think that the population has the responsibility to be aware that we are seriously impacting greenhouse gas emission by our weight. These are basic physics equations."
But some nutrition experts noted that the equations do not take into account other factors -- many of which could affect the big picture of how our diets affect the environment.

"It is true that obese people eat more than lower-weight people," said Madelyn H. Fernstrom, associate professor and director of the UPMC Weight Management Center in Pittsburgh. "However, it's only in places where there's a lot of food. I don't see this as an environmental issue. ... I understand the concept but do not agree with the authors' conclusions."  

Source: Diabetes In Control: Lancet, May 2008

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