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Is America's Obesity Epidemic Also Killing the Planet?

Is America's Obesity Epidemic Also Killing the Planet?

Could the obesity epidemic -- and a general weight gain in the U.S. population -- be adding substantially to our energy-use requirements and our "carbon footprint," resulting in stress on the planet?

Think about glass versus plastic containers for any type of product, such as peanut butter, brewed tea or mayonnaise. Glass, on average, takes 40 percent more fuel to transport because of the difference in weight. The weight of material used in packaging or containers therefore largely determines how energy-intensive it is.

This got me thinking about the United 757 flight I am currently on (as I type this) with, let's say, its full capacity of 158 passengers. If the average flier's weight is 185 pounds, then if we collectively lose just 10 percent of that weight, we would reduce the load on the plane by 3,000 pounds and the aircraft's weight by 1.4 percent, and the energy needed to keep it in flight would drop by a corresponding number. This would apply as well to cars and buses, or anything that uses energy to move people.

You might even say there's a connection between waste management and waist management, by which I mean that reducing the average waist size of 300 million Americans by just one inch, or each individual's weight by five pounds, would create a significant reduction in the amount of food products we consume and the packaging they require.

Now, let's say that this ripple effect throughout the population resulted in a weight reduction of the average person by 2.7 percent. Considering that the average food molecule travels 1,500 miles, think about the energy we could save by reducing the size of shipments.

And that's to say nothing of reducing the amount of water pumped to produce this food, or the petroleum-based chemicals used to grow it (which we'd be even better off eliminating entirely). When you proceed to count the reductions we could achieve in the number of trees cut down and the oil used for the plastic in the packaging, even a small decrease in food consumption, especially of processed and fast food, starts to make a meaningful difference. If you had a correlated reduction of solid waste in the U.S., the 2.7 percent would amount to eliminating 12,400,000 pounds of trash.

From this perspective, losing weight will not only make for healthier people, but a healthier planet as well.

All of this is part of my personal quest to reframe how we think about sustainability by challenging existing models that don't work anymore, and by continuing to make sure we connect all the dots and explore more holistic approaches to preserving our habitat. A good place for us all to start on waste management is with our own waistlines.

Photo CC-licensed by puuikibeach.