Hidden Population: Obesity

Meat Society: Number 22 in a series exploring issues related to curbing demand for animal products, an important climate change solution for individuals and nations alike, especially in Western states where meat and diary consumption dwarfs other regions.

Excerpt from Meat Climate Change: The 2nd Leading Cause of Global Warming by Moses Seenarine, (2016). Xpyr Press, 348 pages ISBN: 0692641157 http://amzn.to/2yn7XrC

Considerable scientific attention is given to calculating the number of people and rate of population growth, but much less effort is expended on estimating average human mass. This disparity exists despite evidence that average body mass is climbing at a sharp pace. Weight is measured using body mass index (BMI). The overweight have a BMI over 25, and the obese have a BMI above 30.

For the first time in human history obese people outnumber underweight people. Almost 11 percent of men and 15 percent of women worldwide are obese, while under 9 percent of men and 10 percent of women are underweight, defined by a BMI of under 18.5. Severe and morbid obesity are associated with highly elevated risks of adverse health outcomes.(509)

Due to the rapid expansion in animal domesticates population and carnism in both industrialized and industrializing countries, human body weight is becoming a serious public health concern. Moreover, excess human population mass could have the same implications for world food energy demands as an extra half a billion people living on the earth. Obese populations need more food to support their extra mass, and thereby amplify climate-altering gases discharged from food production. Overweight bodies also need more fossil fuel to transport them in cars and planes. So maintenance of a healthy weight has crucial health and environmental benefits. Globally, BMI for both men and women have climbed sharply for four decades. 

In 1975, men had a BMI of 21.7 and women had a 22.1 BMI. In 2014, those figures ware 24.2 for men and 24.4 for women. This means that the average person became 1.5 kg (3.3 pounds) heavier each decade. If present trends continue more women will be severely obese than underweight by 2025. 

According to the CDC, in 1960, the average American male weighed 166.3 pounds, which is the same as the average mass for American women in 2010 at 166.2 pounds. The average weight for women in 1960 was 140 pounds, so there was an 18.5 percent gain for females over half a century.(510)

In 2010, the average weight for men jumped to 195.5 pounds, adding almost 30 pounds, a 17.6 percent gain in 50 years. Over 35 percent of American females and males over the age of 20 are obese. An astonishing 70 percent of American adults, who are over 20 years of age, are either overweight or obese. On top of this, around 20 percent of American children between six to 19 years old are obese. 

In 2012, the US came in third, following the Pacific island nations Micronesia and Tonga, for having the highest average weight in the world. By comparison, Americans are 33 pounds heavier than the French, and 70 pounds bigger than the average Bangladeshi.(511)

In 2005, global adult human biomass was 287 million tonnes, of which 15 million tonnes came from being overweight. This extra mass is equivalent to that of 242 million people of average body mass, or five percent of global human biomass. Biomass from obesity was 3.5 million tonnes, the equivalent of 56 million people of average body mass.

North America has 6 percent of the world population but 34 percent of biomass from obesity. In contrast, Asia has 61 percent of the world population and 13 percent of biomass from obesity. One tonne of human biomass corresponds to 12 adults in North America and 17 adults in Asia. 

If all countries of the world had the same BMI distribution as the US, the added human biomass of 58 million tonnes would be equivalent to an extra 935 million people of average body mass. Further, they will have energy requirements equivalent to that of 473 million adults.

Compared with a normal population distribution of BMI, a population that is 40 percent obese requires almost 20 percent more food energy. In a population of one billion, the greenhouse gasses (GHGs) from food production and car travel due to increases in obesity is around 0.4 Giga tonnes (GT) and 1.0 GT of CO2e per year. This is equivalent to between 1 and 2 percent of the recent emissions from the total human population.(512)

A reduction of average weight by 5 kg (11 lb) could reduce transport CO2 discharges in the 34 high-income OECD countries by more than 10 million t. GHG pollution could be diminished another 4 million t through reduction of associated food waste in OECD countries. And, while the shift from cow flesh to other forms of animal flesh in industrialized and countries in transition has lead to food animal lifecycle emissions savings of 20 million t CO2e between 1990 and 2005, GHG releases due to obesity-promoting foodstuffs have increased by more than 400 million t CO2e in advanced developing countries.(513)

Overweight Americans and others in the global North are causing far more planetary heating than people with average body mass. Dietary changes are essential to reversing this dangerous trend. However, this issue is tricky to address since 'fat-shaming' can be a counter-productive strategy.

Chapter 14: DIET OR POPULATION? page 137

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