Researchers warn ‘obesity, undernutrition, and climate change’ are inextricable

Researchers warn ‘obesity, undernutrition, and climate change’ are inextricable

By Luke Vargas   
Courtesy: The Global Syndemic Commission / The Lancet
Courtesy: The Global Syndemic Commission / The Lancet

A commission tasked with addressing global obesity finds the problem can't be disentangled from climate change and malnutrition.

UNITED NATIONS — Researchers from around the world announced this week that the challenges of obesity, malnutrition and climate change can only be tackled if they’re thought of together as part of a single “global syndemic.”

Shiriki Kumanyika is a research professor of community health and prevention at Dornsife School of Public Health and Drexel University.

“’Syndemic’ is a term that we have taken over from the world of diseases.”

Consider contracting two separate diseases, with each magnifying the other and making you more than doubly sick.

Over several decades studying and working to confront obesity in the U.S., Kumanyika has seen those synergies firsthand:

“A lot of the foods that are the most affordable are also high in calories and poor in nutrients.”

Things aren’t going well in tackling those individual problems. Kumanyika and more than 40 colleagues write in the medical journal The Lancet that no country has succeeded in reversing rising obesity and that malnutrition remains “the leading cause of poor health globally.”

Climate change, meanwhile, is making everything worse, fueling crop failures, extreme weather, civil unrest and the spread of disease.

Kumanyika says seeing how the three pandemics feed each other is the best way to figure out how to intervene.

“We use the term ‘triple-duty actions’ or ‘triple-wins’ to say that if everybody is separately working on these things, it’s not as efficient or effective as realizing that when you work on one, you’re actually helping out with the other two.”

One “triple-duty action” would be “reducing subsidies to oil companies” and big agricultural firms, helping make healthier, local food economies more competitive.

Another possible fix is cutting back on red meat, helping lower the incidence of heart disease and obesity, and freeing up agricultural land — no small issue when livestock production generates a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gasses.

For a problem as large as The Global Syndemic, super-sized solutions might be the only remedy.

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