Is Our Food Environment Sustainable?

01/05/2015 11:24 BST | Updated 30/06/2015 10:59 BST

Eating is a pretty basic function. Essential to sustaining life, and infinitely pleasurable, we have few limitations on the food we eat today. Yet the global rise of both obesity, and eating disorders, demonstrate how complicated our relationship with food, and the 'food environment' has become. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Does it matter?

Stress expedites illness, and Obesity is a disease of inflammation. With this in mind, I view obesity as a sign of chronic strain; not willful selection of an extra piece of cake. As opposed to individual choice, in Fat Planet we argue that obesity is the bi product of a series of environmental changes, in addition to increasing psychological stress. From this vantage, we begin the argument that obesity is a disease of poverty. The food supply might be both the chicken and the egg. It may enhance over consumption, which leads to distorted habits, which set up the cycle for increasingly unhealthy relationships with food and our bodies.

Some might view the explosion of food availability as a sign of human genius. (It is!) While I'm delighted that fewer deaths occur due to famine, I'm slow to endorse the idea that we are, in fact, healthier.

Today, diabetes leads to 1.5 million deaths globally, and 80% of these deaths occur in lower middle income countries. Scarier still, in 2012, 17.5 million died from cardiovascular diseases, and 75% of those occurred in lower middle income countries.

Foreign Direct Investment in India's Food Processing sector represents one of the most exciting areas for economic growth. At the same time, half of the average Indian's total caloric intake comes from refined grains, and today, India has the third largest obese population on the planet.

Last year, $3 trillion was spent on obesity and related disease. We need to consider the neurobiological aspects of the way certain foods promote overeating, and also biological factors that can compromise metabolic function (which is the focus of significant research in terms of microbiology and the human micro biome).

Obesity, as a global developmental, demonstrates that many (many!) people simply cannot cope with our environment. Since obesity is preventable, and Non Communicable Diseases are associated with obesity, many people assume we can simply 'eat less and move more' to solve the problem. This advice is about as helpful as telling a single mother with three children, and working two jobs to make ends meet, that she should 'buy low and sell high' to make rent.

Dieting isn't the answer to obesity. Neither is throwing on a pair of running shoes. Both behaviors help, but the broader reality is that we have fallen into an environment that is exploitive. It might seem a little preachy to claim obesity is a threat to resilience. However, when we look at robust associations between obesity and non communicable disease, depression, anxiety, and some terminal illness, we may also want to consider whether we are simply exhausted, and using food to cope.

Problematically, many don't view obesity as a disease, or as a threat to public health. In the West, we focus on body acceptance or self esteem issues. This circumvents any responsibility or critical analysis of the environment we're in. Instead of talking about why a person might need to use chocolate to cope (hint: it tastes great, and it's fast!), we bully or belittle the person for not making healthy choices. Are healthy choices even possible when you're running out the door, trying to deal with professional, personal, and familial responsibilities? So then we swallow the message that we need 'balance'. Is balance possible when we get 5 hours of sleep a night?

Further, I'm not sure it's appropriate to group obesity and body dissatisfaction in the same camp. Personally, I've found the most conventionally beautiful people to be the most anxious about the size of their thighs.

If the explosion of obesity in lower income countries wasn't sufficiently convincing that obesity is a sign of vulnerability, we need to consider the explosion of childhood obesity. By definition, this is the most innocent demographic of all. We may be within the first generation to outlive our children, due to non communicable disease, such as heart disease.

...Isn't it time we considered the broader implications of the food we're producing?