Climate Change and Obesity?

Published by: Alessandro Demaio on 30th Apr 2013 | View all blogs by Alessandro Demaio

By Alessandro R Demaio, Harvard Medical School and The University of Copenhagen

This is likely to cause controversy, but I am going to draw a line in the sand. We have a number of massive Global Health challenges to address as a society, but to me, there are none more pressing, threatening or crucial to act upon than Climate Change and Non-Communicable Disease (NCDs).


Flickr / Cogdogblog


The BIG Two

At face value, one could be forgiven for seeing these two defining global health challenges as unrelated. Forgiven for thinking of them as separate problems with distinct causes for which we need two groups charged with the implementation of unique solutions.

But take a closer look, and you will realise a few things. These are two massive challenges largely resulting from, and solved by, the same determinants. Also, that the immediate and long-term benefits of addressing one are enormous, dwarfed only by the benefits and co-benefits of addressing both together.

The global health community has a lot to do in the coming decades, with increasingly less. Limited fiscal, human and natural resources available – compounded by austerity and economic conservatism during what could be a lengthy or permanent downturn in government budgets and overseas aid. As a collective, we must look more to opportunities for common progress and gains, and less to siloed initiatives as we have seen in the past few decades. We must seek out social investments which will maximise the benefits returned. One way of doing so, is to look for measures which will solve multiple problems, or address problems which are caused by the same determinants.

We must acknowledge that slicing major challenges into verticalised problems diminishes or precludes opportunities for common progress.

You see, NCDs and Climate Change do in fact share the same causes and largely require the same solutions. Carbon-intensive and labour-conserving lifestyles; highly-processed food requiring large energy inputs; larger portions of meat and higher calorie diets; increasing air pollution… Yet we separate their responses and those commanded with their mitigation. Health is dependent on a healthy environment, both urban and natural.


Flickr / Planeta


The GOOD News.

What’s exciting though, is that given their shared causes and mitigation strategies, by addressing one we will also be addressing the other. By tackling climate change, in addition to bringing the health benefits associated with this alone, we could also bring co-benefits of a reduced burden of chronic disease. By investing in ways to make healthier, less-processed food more affordable we reduce the carbon-intensiveness of our diets but are also likely to see a reduction in diet-related diabetes and heart disease. Providing safe public environments conducive to biking or active living will not only reduce carbon emissions and environmental pollutants, but may also reduce community rates of asthma, lung disease and even cancers.

This idea, or the inter-linked nature of Climate Change and NCDs is not new. But it continues to largely fly under the community radar. A greater awareness could lead to further discussion, engagement, collaborative mitigation and collective action.

For more on global health, explore Translational Global Health, from Alessandro and PLoS.

Alessandro R Demaio does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.



  • Andrew Mackie
    by Andrew Mackie 3 years ago
    It's nice to hear someone discussing the connection between environmentalism and health. Too often these concepts are entirely disconnected. This is particularly relevant when nutrition, urban environment and climate are considered. Virtually mandatory vehicle ownership and mandatory GMO/processed/junk-food diets are the norm across North America. It leads to a simple formula that just makes sense. To start a program of carbon reduction means not just turning off the lights more, and driving less, but also building better cities, walking or biking more, and eating more local, wholesome foods. The great thing is that it works both ways. To start a true health program means exercising more, reducing exposure to chemicals, eating better foods, and so on. Either way, we are contributing positively to our climate problem. It just makes logical sense. Now, how do we give this concept more publicity?
  • Keith Bell
    by Keith Bell 3 years ago
    Several studies have revealed abnormal gut flora in obesity using molecular science. "Diet-related diabetes" is also about shifting of flora. Diet shifts flora because we're not the only ones consuming . . . but diet is secondary to flora. Flora imbalance is what drives NCDs. It's well known that poor sanitation alters flora, yet sanitation has yet to be placed on the NCD agenda. It's no accident the most obese nations are also least sanitary, defecating directly into drinking water for generations. This is also the underlying cause of the UK's rickets epidemic which is NOT a matter of sunshine as experts report.
  • Keith Bell
    by Keith Bell 3 years ago
    Andrew, I wish it were that simple, but we have been seriously damaging our environment with raw and poorly treated sewage. All the bike riding and diets in the world don't easily reverse diabetes epidemics. We're talking about a severely altered microbiome. Look at your own nation's diabetes epidemic. The Canadian Diabetes Association says one in three Canadians will have diabetes or prediabetes by 2020. The same is happening in the USA and all over the globe. Why have northern United States (Washington, Idaho, Montana, Minnesota, Maine) more than doubled diabetes prevalence in just the past 15 years? Why don't we look upstream toward our polluting Canadian neighbors? I'm saying the single largest driving force behind NCDs is poor sanitation. Canadian scientists rationalize discharge of raw sewage into bodies of water, as if they were nature's cleaning service. The same attitude takes place everywhere on Earth. It's time to end mixing waste with water. Yet sanitation isn't even on the NCD agenda. Andrew, have you ever investigated the crucial aspect of your own gut flora driving your health? There is no more powerful health construct for people and planet; we're only beginning to acknowledge it. And how this microbial pollution actually speeds global warming because it's a significant source of carbon dioxide isn't even on the map!
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