Global warming is real. This past year was the hottest on record for the Northeast. Extreme weather events linked to climate change are predicted to occur all over the globe in the next decades and become the norm rather than the exception.
Obesity rates are up: more than one-third of adults and about 17 percent of children in the U.S. are obese. In the U.K., 60.8 percent of adults and 31.1 percent of children are classified as overweight.
In view of a recent series of letters in the Journal of American Public Health, Tom Laskawy at Grist asks if these two phenomena, climate change and obesity, might be related. Given recent reports about food prices, food insecurity and climate change, it seems at least worthwhile to consider how the latter could be contributing to rising rates of obesity.
Extreme Weather, Food Prices and People’s Buying Habits
Extreme weather events such as the drought in the U.S.’s Midwestern and Southwestern regions have indeed affected crops. As Laskawy writes, ”wheat, more than corn, rice, and soy, seems particularly sensitive to the changes we’re experiencing” and wheat production is now “under pressure” around the world.
The main issue is rising food prices as a result of climate change. University of Washington epidemiologist Adam Drewnowski points out that increases in food prices in 2008 and 2010 in the U.S. were highest for the healthiest foods and, in particular, for fruits and vegetables. In contrast, foods made from “energy-dense grains, sweets, and fats” — processed foods that have are more and more plentiful, and cheaper, due to increasingly efficient technology — become the “best way to provide daily calories at a manageable cost.”
Food prices (especially for dairy, eggs and meat) are on track to rise in 2013 due to the damage to crops from this year’s drought. With food prices up, “refined grains, added sugars, and vegetable fats will replace healthier options, first for the poor and later for the middle class,” says Drewnowski. Lower food prices, not proximity, are the main factor in how people choose their groceries, as another study by Drewnowski (cited by Laskawy) has found. So, if healthy foods like fruits and vegetables cost more, people with lower incomes aren’t going to be buying and eating them.
Anecdotally, I’ve observed that apples, bananas and leafy green vegetables at my local New Jersey grocery store rarely go on sale (and then are still relatively pricey). But shoppers can find “deals” all the time on cheesy crackers, frozen dinners made from ultra-processed ingredients and, of course, soda.
Climate Change and Rising Inactivity Rates
Care2′s Judy Molland recently wrote about another reason that climate change is affecting health, especially that of younger generations. Growing up at a time when summer days aren’t just hot but broiling and it is too easy to stay inside on a cushy couch and use the iPad, today’s children are far less likely to have a connection to nature.
In the U.S., physical education and recess occupy less and less of the school day. Parents, wary of safety, are often not willing to let kids play outside, certainly not without adult supervision. As a result, children are learning more about how CO2 emissions affect their health and that of the planet’s but spending less time walking in the woods, sifting their toes in the sand or just running around in their backyards (if they have one and can play in it).
Even more, around the world, people are engaging in less and less physical activity so that inactivity rates are rising to possibly pandemic levels, says one study published in July in the medical journal The Lancet.
Again, a climate change-obesity link is at the level of “educated speculation” right now, as Laskawy emphasizes. Certainly we should devote more study to how climate change is influencing not only our global food supplies but also nutrition and, too, our whole relationship with the great, and greatly changing, outdoors.
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