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Friday, December 14, 2007

Overeating and the environment

Who you callin' fat?We talk a lot about food. The last two books we've read for the book club have revolved around food - whether that be food production concerned with organics or local growers, farmers markets or growing you own food. Food plays a large part of our lives for both pleasure and sustenance, but it also can have a huge environmental impact, depending on how it is grown and transported.

You hear about a lot of diets or challenges, like the 100 Mile Diet, or people only eating locally or organically as part of their experiment to live a more green lifestyle. And, lord knows, we've done the same on this blog.

But, one thing you generally don't hear about, related with all this food talk, is total consumption and the effect on the environment. You see, it's all fine and dandy to focus on only eating locally and organically or growing your own, but what is the impact of eating too much food? I suspect it's a subject not generally discussed because of American's obsession with eating and size. Just look at the headlines of "who's fat now!" countered with "who's anorexic now!" Not to be confused with the "look who was fat and is now anorexic!" Whee! We can't seem to decide which is worse.

So, I want to bring your attention to the other part of the food puzzle and that is eating only what is necessary to maintain your proper weight. Now, I'm sitting in a very big glass house over here as I'm a stress eater and, well, there's a lot of stress over here. And, I've gained a few pounds. Okay, maybe 15. And it popped into my head this morning about the environmental impact of overeating (among other things).

According to this article in the Journal of Agriculture and Human Values, titled Luxus Consumption: Wasting Food Resources Through Overeating:

Between 1983 and 2000, US food consumption, including waste, increased by 18% or 600 kcal per person. This consumption required 100.6 million hectares for the US population, and 3.1% of total US energy consumption.

A 3.1% energy consumption increase - just from overeating. And that's only since 1983, we're not talking about since 1910 or anything. (For your reference, a Big Mac® is only 540 calories.)

Getting Jiggly With It

In addition to the resources required in the manufacture of the extra food consumed, there's also the resources required in dealing with the additional health problems created by overeating and obesity. With diabetes on the rise, high cholesterol, heart disease and all manner of other associated problems that means that there are more drugs, medical procedures and surgeries as a result of this overeating.

This creates an environmental impact due to the resources used in pharmaceutical development, manufacturing and distribution, all the paper, plastics and other materials needed for care, therapies and surgeries. The list goes on and on. All for health issues that are, for the most part, preventable.

Kirstie Alley - former environmental nightmare?So, next time you're sitting down with that big slice of organic, local pie, don't forget about the other consequences of hoarking down that extra 600 calories.

In thinking about food, has the environmental impact of overeating ever crossed your mind?

23 comments:

laurel said...

I think this is a great point to raise. I have considered that before...unfortunately, it usually isn't enough to make me put down said food item. I wonder: if potential health issues won't make people stop overeating, will impact on the environment do it? I kind of doubt it. Why is it that americans are eating themselves to death? I have my own opinions on it...but probably not enough room to express them here, on this comment page! :)
I am glad you talked about this.

Burbanmom said...

Wow. Never even crossed my mind. In fact, I was always raised to "clean your plate", as there were always "starving children" in some strange part of the world. Apparently, my being overweight would somehow help ease their pain.

This is some good mind candy to think about. Thanks, Crunchy!

Malva said...

I think it's important to talk about this but it's not exactly politically correct so we don't hear about it.

All these accomodations we're making to allow for larger pant sizes use more resources. From the clothing that requires twice the amount of cotton to the shipping of said clothing (fewer larger items would fit in a truck or container).

Less people fit on an airplane.

Etc.

Where I'm always struck by this is when I go into an old, non renovated movie theater or auditorium. The seats are so small in comparison.

El said...

Crunchy how could you: it's cookie season!

Actually, I think just as large a problem as our growing selves is wasting food. You should post about how much of our foodstuff we throw away.

Tara said...

This is something I think about often. I have some ongoing health issues. About three years ago I decided to ditch my GP and use a DO. While I do take some supplements (that come in glass bottles, which I recycle) most of my healing has been done through diet. I think back to the path I was on with my GP and, not only was my health going down the toilet, but the impact I was making on the environment was too. The Rx bottles and OTC meds she had me taking, the amount of convenience foods and take out I used because I had no energy to cook or shop. Consequently the health of my entire family could have gone down the tubes because they would have been eating the same type of diet. I wasn't overweight by any means, so I guess my comment is more about health and environmental impact.
Regarding the weight issue, I do find it interesting how clothing manufacturers have adjusted vanity sizing to allow for hormone-inflated bodies. I love to thrift and even though I'm a solid size 4-6 now, all my older thrift finds are a 10-12. We hosted an exchange student from Europe 5 years ago and, even though she watched her eating and was active, she packed on 20 pounds. This was before we switched to organic foods and we all think it was due to hormones in the food. She lost the weight a year after returning home and heard this from other exchange students who had come to the States. A post for another day, perhaps?
Anyway... great topic and I'm glad you've posted about it.

DC said...

Good info. Crunchy.

I am wondering to what extent the corporate takeover of the food industry has contributed to obesity. The production of corn in the U.S. is heavily subsidized, which has allowed a few corporations, like ADM, to create a booming market for high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which now accounts for half of the caloric sweeteners added to processed food. The abundance of cheap HFCS has made it possible for manufacturers to sweeten food liberally without it raising their production costs significantly. Between 1975 and 1997, the average annual per capita consumption of HFCS went from almost nothing to over 60 pounds a year. I suspect that if we didn’t have such a wide variety of cheap, prepackaged, high fat, high caloric foods, that obesity rates would not be as high.

It is ironic that in a culture that is all about consumption – of food and everything else – that our standard of beauty is one of slimness. We push all of this crappy, processed food on people and then tell them that they are overweight and need to spend all this money on diet pills and weight loss programs so that they will look like the thin supermodel societal ideal. So they spend all this money, lose weight for a while, then gain it back, and the process starts all over again. People get frustrated with this, and it leads to depression, eating disorders and a host of other problems.

The other irony is that all of the money spent on overproduction and overconsumption of unhealthy food, the weight loss industry, treating eating disorders, and health care related to obesity cause the gross domestic product (GDP) to go up, up, up – and the economists cheer, saying that our nation is more productive and has a higher standard of living.

We do need to get back to eating good, healthy organic food in modest portions. We also need to help people who have trouble controlling their appetites feel good about themselves, regardless of how they look. The real beauty is, after all, inside of us. It’s better to be overweight and feel good about yourself than to be constantly on crash diets and have a low self-esteem.

Anna said...

What a great post! I'd be interested to see what the calorie increase has been since the 1950's. So much food is prepackaged/precooked/ready-to-eat now that of course the high fructose corn syrup/additives etc are becoming an issue. Even 24 years ago I'm sure the number of meals cooked from scratch was much higher than it is today. In fact, there is probably some correlation between women's right to work outside the home and the average adult weight. With the recent "revival" of the more traditional methods of cooking (canning, breadmaking) which obviously take more time, I wonder if we'll see a higher percentage of at least one spouse working less than 40 hours a week outside the home. (I'm all for stay-at-home dads :-) )

Theresa said...

This is a point I struggle with daily. I feel like a hypocrite a lot of the time because while I use electricity and natural gas like a miser, I still scarf down a whole bowl of popcorn at once.

Christine said...

Never crossed my mind. Excellent point! I heart you!

Chile said...

I've thought about this one a lot over the years and even tried to use it as motivation to lose weight. But, like you, I'm a stress eater. Since really learning about peak oil and climate change, and understanding their rapid approach, I too have put on weight. :(

Here are more side-effects of excess weight due to overeating:
- more material needed to make bigger clothes and more loads of laundry needed to wash them.
- incrementally more soap and lotion required for a larger body, but over years it will add up.
- decreased gas mileage - again, incremental but every bit adds up.
- increased wear and tear on shoes.

Jennifer said...

I actually used this as motivation to drop 50 lbs last year...

AND used it to justify stopping when full, regardless of the food on my plate.

For me, having a justification for not cleaning my plate was necessary.

The justification? It is better to USE the food in a compost pile or save it as leftovers and EAT it tomorrow (even if it's just a bite) than to put that waste on my body, where it decreases my health and helps to cause all of the detriments listed by you and Chile (in her above comment).

I feel strongly about this wasted food issue... it is MORE waste on your body than in a compost pile (or saved as leftovers). I'm trying to get my husband on board... his early progamming on the "clean your plate" method was a little stronger, though.

A really good book, btw, about eating for what your body NEEDS is called "Intuitive Eating". The author's website is here: http://www.intuitiveeating.com/
(I have NO connection to them!)

arduous said...

Wow. I had definitely never thought about this but this is a great point. I agree with dc that a lot of the obesity epidemic has to do with the government bankrolling HFCS as well as the high tarrifs placed on sugar.

Wouldn't it be nice if the farm bill actually did what it should instead of compounding the problems?

Anna Banana said...

Hot button issue! I think about this all the time. I teach some vegetarian cooking classes, and I wonder if people look at my extra 30 lbs. and wonder if they should go eat some low-fat chicken instead. I'm working on the stress eating and compulsion to finish the leftovers using Buddhist practices. Staying with my craving just a little longer before giving in. I think it's working...I'll be blogging about it! Thanks for raising this important issue.

Spice said...

This is an excellent point. I, myself, am guilty of over eating.
Like Crunchy, I'm a stress eater. PLUS I have a Serbian grandmother who was a food Nazi. Not only would she tell us to clean our plates, but she would heap mounds of food on said plate. Let's just say that it was tough to walk, and not roll, away from her table.
I've been working on eating less and on wasting less food.
Yes there are starving people all over the world, but my leftover steak won't get to them no matter what Granny told me. It'll just end up in the garbage, and the people will still be starving. If we eat less to begin with, maybe some of that food will end up on other plates, or some of the energy used to produce it will go somewhere where it's needed more.
I will admit here that eating less has become a little easier over the last year.
I was recently diagnosed with ADD and am now medicated for it. I find myself less apt to eat something because I'm stressed or depressed because I can't get anything done. And I'm more thoughtful with my eating.
It helps to realize why we're super-sizing and do something about the root problem so we can waste less!

Trina said...

I can relate to Laurel. I've thought about it often, but that pie tastes so good that the thought of the environmental impact isn't enough to make me pass up the pie. There's always some rationalization that I can come up with why I deserve this splurge.

Sarah said...

Fabulous point.

I think about this alot, esp with a medical career. Aside from the environmental impact, we would save THOUSANDS in health care dollars if people were more active, and didn't overeat. (well, and smoking too, but that's for another time.)

This is also akin to one of the arguments for a vegetarian (or half vegetarian) diet. It takes more resources to produce meat than it does vegetables.

Sarah said...

Sorry, the other thing I should have mentioned in my comment (like Tara did) is that people would be so much more healthier if they ate less too.
I guess we just have to be careful that we don't do the pendulum swing. You know, from obesity to anorexia.

Britta said...

I've thought about it before, but only from the viewpoint of increased costs and wastes from medicine. Didn't really think of it in terms of original energy production that went into the food. Thanks!

Melissa said...

You know, I think I love you! :)

I really never thought about this before. Ever. Perhaps I was too busy stuffing my face or something.

Besides the obvious health benefits of not being obese, I recently heard that it's healthy to fast regularly so your digestive system is more efficient (or something like that!).

Definitely something to chew on--pun intended---while I ponder how to reduce my consumption in another way!

Christy said...

We think about this a lot in our house. We are all thin I think because we really think about what and how much we are eating. We stop eating when we don't feel hungry anymore, not when we are full. I think there is a big difference. We also can all eat just 1 cookie or a couple of chips on the rare occasions when these things are around. I also try to practice mindful eating, where I really taste and chew each bite. It helps me savor the food more and eat less. Even my 8 year old son eats just enough to keep his energy up and is good at eating mindfully. It is something you can do as a family that can really catch on even at a young age.

Christy said...

A couple more things (sorry, this is a topic I'm pretty passionate about). We always put away leftovers, no matter how small to eat later. I've been known to put away half a sandwich, or 5 or 6 bites of mac and cheese, or 3 bites of steak to eat as a snack later. There is no waste and I'm stopping without eating too much. Also, I will put a smallish first serving on my plate and eat that and then wait 10-15 minutes before getting more. I often find after waiting 10 minutes I'm not really hungry for more and I can put it away for later.

Theresa said...

I've been reading a great little book by Thich Nhat Hanh, called Peace is Every Step. The premise is that world peace begins with personal peace and he considers mindful eating to be part of the practice of personal peace. Here are a couple short quotes:

"Mindful eating can cultivate seeds of compassion and understanding that will strengthen us to do something to help hungry and lonely people to be nourished."

"When I hold a bowl of rice or a piece of bread, I know that I am fortunate."

"Food reveals our connection with the earth. Each bite contains the life of the sun and the earth."

Anna Banana - I'm looking forward to checking out your blog about how your Buddhist practices are helping you deal with cravings.

bred said...

This is fascinating... I have never thought about the environmental impact of overeating. Now how, oh how do we change our habits????
Thank you for raising this interesting and important issue.

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