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Why The Amount of Food Eaten is as Important as the Amount That is Not

I have previously linked the obesity epidemic to global warming, suggesting that the solution to one of these problems is likely the solution to the other.

Here is now another spin to this idea from a study by Kevin Hall and colleagues from the US National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, just published in PLoS.

Hall and colleagues calculated the energy content of nationwide food waste from the difference between the US food supply and the food consumed by the population. The latter was estimated using a validated mathematical model of metabolism relating body weight to the amount of food eaten.

Their calculations show that the US per capita food waste has progressively increased by ~50% since 1974 reaching more than 1400 kcal per person per day or 150 trillion kcal per year (enough to feed ~150 Million additional people).

They further estimate that food waste now accounts for more than one quarter of the total freshwater consumption in the US and ~300 million barrels of oil per year (or ~1/3 of Alberta’s annual oil production).

In addition to the methane and CO2 emissions from the production of this food that no one needs, even more of these gases are produced as the food decomposes in landfills.

The researchers speculate that this increased availability of cheap food creates a “push” effect (now that we’ve gone to the trouble of producing it, let’s make sure it gets eaten), that promotes caloric overconsumption and the development of obesity.

As further pointed out in a discussion of this article in the ECONOMIST,

The cheaper food is, the more likely it is to be thrown away even before it is sold to someone who might actually eat it. Such supply-chain waste can be built into the price, and usually makes economic sense. Throwing away leftovers is often better business than risking running out of stock. Yet any waste of a valuable resource is offensive at a visceral level.

I could not agree more.

Edmonton, Alberta

Hat tip to Kavita for drawing my attention to this article


  1. What’s hard is that the solution to the problem is likely to increase food costs, but only to those who can afford it. Or, to increase the costs of foods with high calorie density and low nutrient value to all, and to make sure that those who have difficulty paying for food have access to high-nutrient, low calorie dense foods.
    It’s not a very popular stand for a politician to take, that food is too cheap. But where I live, in Washington State, there is a huge budget crisis (as there is in most states), so now a tax that can be seen as beneficial to fixing the budget crisis while addressing health issues might become palatable.
    I’m in favor of increasing taxes on foods with low-nutrient value — we would have to find a way to make sure that fortified foods wouldn’t go through the loophole. What I worry about most is what people who don’t have access to high-nutrient foods will do, because they may continue buying the unhealthier foods and make their nutritional status worse.
    I suppose a tax like this would mean that those influenced by the change in price would likely become healthier, while those unable to change their habits would only become less healthy, if they can’t afford other foods, or don’t find them appetizing. There has to be an educational and promotional component to such a campaign as well.
    I have consciously decided to spend more on food. I waste way more than I wish I did, but part of that is having a young child who I don’t force to clean her plate, and who I want to expose to a variety of foods even if she doesn’t eat them all of the time.
    What are your thoughts on increasing the costs of food, and where in the system to do it? I am in favor of changing the subsidies to farmers, but I know that there would be many people in the food chain, so to speak, with powerful lobbyists to fight it. Big food is really big. I want to fight it but not under the banner of fighting obesity (because to do so increases the stigma and scapegoating of fat people) so much as fighting for healthy people and a healthy planet.

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  2. When we talk about food being too cheap, it is really important to consider – who can afford more expensive food? The wealthy healthy? If nothing is done on the system leavel, then yes, just them.
    One part of the solution (in the US) could be to use the land currently growing corn (that goes on to feed factory-cows and be made into cheap high sugar food and drinks), to grow actual food that the communities around the farms can eat. The US governement could stop using tax money to subsidise all that corn growth and put it to better use (social programs, job creation…)
    For Canadians, I heard on the news murmurings from the Albertan farmers about starting to use corn to feed beef to make for cheaper meat. While costs at the grocery store may be cheap, beware – it usually means costs run deep elsewhere- indirectly to the consumer (their health, their enjoyment of real food) and the environment.
    Shop at the farmers market, stock your deep freeze for winter, are two easy things we can do here in Alberta (or anywhere).

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  3. The environment is certainly affected by what we eat and do not eat. I recently read somewhere that to grow one pound of tomatoes it takes 23 gallons of water. To produce one pound of beef it takes 2000 to 5000 gallons of water. The same ratio occurs when the fuel and its emmissions is compared. There is an added detriment to producing food from livestock, that of the excrement that is not regulated like human feces. SO do we stop eating meat to save the world by reducing the water it takes to produce it??

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