Rosanna Pike | Climate change and its link to obesity
Recently, there has been much buzz about climate change and its detrimental impacts on humans, wildlife, and natural resources. An article by Dr Vanessa White-Barrow ‘Climate change impacts on food security and nutrition’ published in June 2022 in The Sunday Gleaner , detailed the extremities of this phenomenon and its intrinsic link to societal sectors such as disease outbreaks, damage to ecosystems and infrastructure, and most significantly, food security.
Let us shift our focus to climate change and obesity and how the two are interrelated. Despite no obvious connection, research has proven the clear and complex relationship between the two. Climate change is a contributing factor to obesity, which is already the leading cause of poor health globally. Due to the extensive effects of the rapidly changing climate on human health and natural systems, scientists have recently considered climate change as a pandemic.
Sadly, we live in a time when the climate has been increasing stressors that disrupt our forestry and ecosystems. The extreme temperature changes have resulted in the loss of much-needed vegetation through droughts, wildfires, and even pest outbreaks. With these temperature increases and intermittent loss of vegetation, then healthy food options like fruits, vegetables, and other crops will become even more expensive due to scarcity, making it harder to maintain a healthy diet.
To make matters worse, the further price surge on fresh produce will exacerbate the dietary shift of Jamaicans, which has already been suffering at the hands of globalisation. Cheaper, more convenient alternatives that are energy-dense and embellished with the inclusion of unhealthy fats, added sugars and salt/sodium will inevitably become more appealing and accessible to our population.
According to the Jamaica Health and Lifestyle Survey II (2016-2017), over half (54 per cent) of the Jamaican population is overweight/obese. More concerning is the fact that between 2010 and 2017, there was an alarming 68 per cent increase in obesity in Jamaican students aged 13-15, and in 2017, over 30,000 Jamaican children aged 10-19 had been diagnosed with hypertension. What then will the statistics show on the next national survey? On a global scale, research has shown that the diets of obese individuals usually have 30 per cent more calories as they require more energy to maintain their greater body weight. This in itself presents an even more complex issue for us as a nation.
Coupled with the dietary shift influenced by the changing climate is the issue of physical activity. Technically, due to the increasing ambient temperatures, people are becoming less active than normal which in turn leads to the body being less able to burn fat. If we are less active, then inevitably, we add to the greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint as we resort to the luxury of vehicles to move around, or quite frankly, stay in house and ‘become one with the sofa/bed’.
A 2022 study by a US environmental physiologist found that obesity and physical inactivity among children are leaving many struggling to regulate their body temperature in the heat, causing them to do less exercise. The main point here is that with changes in our lifestyle to incorporate more physical activity, then we are more likely to reduce our chances of becoming overweight/obese and allowing our body to acclimatise to higher temperatures in order to reduce the negative effects of heat stress.
CLIMATE IS CHANGING, SO SHOULD WE
While we acknowledge that climate change is indeed real and happening right before our eyes, it is crucial that we also appreciate that the climate is intrinsically linked with human health, agriculture and food and nutrition. Over the past two years at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change 2021-2022 (COP26 and COP 27), we have witnessed a global call for action and numerous debates on the need for strategies to help tackle and minimise the issue.
Jamaica’s participation and commitment to becoming part of a global network of net-zero, climate-resilient developing countries by 2050 is now welcome more than ever. As aforementioned by Dr White-Barrow, these goals combined have the potential to benefit Jamaica through the restoration of depleted fishing grounds and fish populations, safeguarding carbon stored in vegetation and soils, and increasing food security.
What then can be done to help mitigate the impending effects we expect to see and to curb this obesity trend? Luckily, the abundance of answers lies right before our eyes and embedded within the framework of a number of national plans and policies. The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries’ recently launched Grow Smart, Eat Smart campaign, aiming to boost agricultural production while increasing the supply of nutritious and affordable foods to improve the nation’s health. Such an initiative can help transform the Jamaican food, nutrition and health landscape by bolstering food security, contributing to the environment through increased vegetation and reduce obesity and related NCDs.
By focusing on crop production and climate-smart practices, this Grow Smart, Eat Smart campaign can truly render some positive impact by encouraging Jamaicans to set up backyard gardens and eat what they grow. This provides added benefits to the environment of less food waste through composting and a reduced carbon footprint.
By growing our own food, Jamaica would be helping to reduce the high amounts of fossil fuels burned that fill the environment resulting from importing foods from other countries. The campaign also deserves commendation for its aim to expand the already instituted Jamaica 4-H Clubs’ school garden programme as a means of engaging Jamaican youth in agriculture from an early age. Just think about it.
As our children grow their own fruits and vegetables, their interest in fresh, healthy produce is piqued and will be reflected in their eating habits as they begin to enjoy the fresh foods they have grown. This will also help to reduce the ever-growing trends in childhood obesity. Not to mention the added benefits as planting, weeding, and watering is a form of exercise that is easily incorporated into one’s daily routine, therefore increasing physical activity levels and helping to reduce obesity.
STRATEGIES TO COMBAT RISKS
Front-of-package warning labels (FOPWLs) and a national school nutrition policy are strategies that can help to combat the risks associated with climate change and obesity. How so? With clearly visible warning labels on the front of ultra-processed food products and beverages loaded with unhealthy fats, sodium/salt and added sugars, Jamaicans will be empowered to make more informed choices about the foods they eat. Additionally, upon the initiative of consumers, this may help to reduce the use of products in packages that may degrade and produce environmentally hazardous waste.
The soon-to-be implemented national school nutrition policy will produce desired results through the regulation of the school food environment. This policy is a collaboration between the Ministry of Health and Wellness and the Ministry of Education, Information and Youth. Such a policy, integrated with concepts under the Grow Smart, Eat Smart initiative and Jamaica 4-H Clubs’ school garden programme, can help to shape a climate-friendly, healthier Jamaica. Through the regulation of packaged, processed products, and more school gardens as a source of fresh produce for school meals, then we can expect to see a multiplier effect on the social, economic, and health benefits.
Bottom line is that climate change undermines environmental determinants of health such as clean air and water and sufficient nutritious food and increases the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events that hamper physical activity. While Jamaica continues to engage with other committed countries to explore means of combating climate change, let us remember to include strategies that support protecting human health. Plans that streamline resources for health and climate change to bolster agriculture, food security, and physical activity are critical. Let’s also continue to encourage Jamaicans to grow more of their own food. Even if you just start with few tomatoes and peppers, you are contributing to a healthier you and a healthier planet. Infrastructure that facilitates safe green space for walking and cycling, and favourable land-use patterns, may further positively impact physical-activity levels, helping to reduce overweight/obesity and improve mental health. Let’s save the future by saving the Earth, for if we save the Earth today, we can survive tomorrow!
Rosanna Pike is health education officer, Global Health Advocacy Project, The Heart Foundation of Jamaica. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.