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SYLVAIN CHARLEBOIS: Overeaters could become new environmentalist target

Sylvain Charlebois says public shaming may reach a new, awkward level by looking at how much we eat. A recent study suggests that obesity and overeating generates about 20 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions when compared to diets of "normal weight" people.
Sylvain Charlebois says public shaming may reach a new, awkward level by looking at how much we eat. A recent study suggests that obesity and overeating generates about 20 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions when compared to diets of people of "normal weight."

Is weight shaming going to be a thing? Let’s hope not. 

Move over flight shaming, we may see environmentalists target a new group of individuals: Overeaters.  Yes, overeating could potentially become the next shaming target. 

For months now, many have taken to social media to spread their concerns about choices made when travelling. Some means to travel, especially the plane, have been targeted by environmentalists, using guilt and public shaming to get people to think differently about their lifestyle.

Even if air travel is responsible for less than two per cent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, discrediting those who travel by plane is a continuing practice. Air travel does emit GHGs, but this industry is far from being the worse culprit, and many travellers have no other option but to fly to reach their destination. Studies have suggested that reducing the number of flights could reduce our carbon footprint. Perhaps, but weaponizing science to support a social movement or support a political campaign is now the new norm and often leads to contentious debates. 

Similarly, food, even though it can be personal and culturally charged, is not immune to this phenomenon.  

Public shaming may reach a new, awkward level by looking at how much we eat.

Public shaming may reach a new, awkward level by looking at how much we eat. A recent study published by the Obesity Society suggests that obesity and overeating generates approximately 20 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions when compared to diets of people considered to have normal weight.

Researchers found that global obesity was estimated to contribute an extra 700 megatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year, or about 1.6 per cent of all man-made emissions, which is almost the same as air travel. The authors of the new study did emphasize that it is crucially important that this information does not lead to more weight stigmatization. But given the era we are in, recognizing how social media can interpret science differently, the potential for consumers with excess weight to be stigmatized is real. And some of us can be overly sensitive about this, especially after the holiday season. 

Climate change has clearly become an important issue for a growing number of consumers. Some even call it a crisis. Such rhetoric is meant to entice governments and industry to make changes, and adopt new regulations in order to safeguard the planet. It is also attempting to cause consumers to think differently and become better environmental stewards. 

Individually, we all make decisions based on professional responsibilities, personal wants and lifestyles. And, of course, we can all make different choices to help the planet. The public discourse is moving towards individualizing a plan of action to better serve the environment. That is all wonderful but using guilt and dishonour to condemn choices we all make daily is starting to reach uncomfortable levels, especially if these tactics are used against people facing weight challenges.

Obesity is a multi-faceted, highly complicated issue. Genetics, changing health conditions, mental health, our sedentary lifestyles, are all factors that can contribute to sudden or long-term weight gains. And many times, factors are beyond an individual’s control. Linking overeating with climate change is indeed a dangerous path to take and should be avoided at all cost. The potential to harm is certainly there. 
Food waste, on the other hand, is more controllable and not as personal.

Food waste is not as complex either. Our discussion to reduce the amount of resources to generate the food we consume should be based on the food we waste and need to rescue, not obesity. And packaging, plastics, do represent a more appropriate target for environmentalist. 

Fueled by highly public reports supporting one view or another, protein consumption has become a highly polarized, sensitive issue

The Obesity Society’s study likely won’t help our quest to find a socially acceptable contract between good dieting and our environmental obligations. The year 2019 was marked by a very divisive, ridiculous debate between those who believed animal proteins are irreplaceable and those who fear that our current collective course of meat consumption is not sustainable.

Fueled by highly public reports supporting one view or another, protein consumption has become a highly polarized, sensitive issue. The great protein war, as some would suggest, is dividing industries, scientists, and even families. Some conversations between interest groups have been shockingly disruptive in recent months. 

Global meat consumption is slowly reaching its peak and the world is changing, without the shaming. Considering how food can be as cultural as it is personal, shaming someone for eating a hamburger, or a good steak is simply insolent. 

Researchers conceded that the imprecise nature of data combinations should get readers to consider findings with some caution. This, however, may not be enough to discourage some groups to use the study against those they believe are behaving irresponsibly in the face of our climate crisis. 

And that would indeed be shameful.

Sylvain Charlebois is professor in Food Distribution and Policy and senior director of the Agri-Food Analytic Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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