Do Obese People Aggravate Global Warming?

Obesity experts overwhelmingly condemned a letter in the medical journal the Lancet Thursday that suggested growing rates of obesity pose a threat to the environment.

The letter, submitted by researchers from the United Kingdom, implicates the rising tide of obesity in greater oil consumption, more food production -- and, ultimately, in an increase in the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

"It is a significant contribution," said Phil Edwards, co-author of the letter and senior statistician at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom.

"Eighteen percent more food energy is required in many populations where there is a large prevalence of obesity," he said, citing a 460-calorie increase in daily food intake for an obese individual. "There is a clear impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in order to grow that food."

Edwards and colleague Ian Roberts wrote in the letter that "more transportation fuel energy will be used to transport the increased mass of the obese population, which will increase even further if, as is likely, the overweight people in response to their increased body mass choose to walk less and drive more."

While some nutrition and obesity experts said the rationale for the findings were sound, they said the research on which the letter is based overlooks more important, well-known factors involved in increased food production.

"We throw away far more food that the extra 460 calories per day they point out," said Dr. Tim Church, chairman in health wisdom at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. "In other words, most of our food overproduction is due to waste, not overeating. It is estimated that one-fourth of the food produced in the U.S. goes to waste."

Church added, "Does having 50 extra pounds in a Chevy Tahoe really affect gas mileage? I do not think so."

But more troubling, some said, was the stigma that could arise from the suggestion that those who are obese pose a greater environmental burden than their slimmer counterparts.

"There is enough stigma attached to obesity as it is," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center in New Haven, Conn. "We should very carefully avoid making it seem as if overweight people are responsible for environmental decline."

"Obese people have enough issues to deal with without being demonized for their impact on the environment," agreed Keith-Thomas Ayoob, pediatric nutritionist and associate professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. "The truth is, all people are an environmental burden.

"It is offensive, and I'm not overweight," he said. "I hope the writers are not in the position of seeing patients. They must have missed the lecture on bedside manner."

A Growing Environmental Impact?

Edwards maintains the rationale for his calculations is solid. Out of the roughly 6 billion people alive today, about one billion live in developed countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. It is in such countries that obesity rates are the highest. Edwards and his colleagues created a hypothetical model of these 1 billion people using the U.K. population as a template.

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