The Health Sustainability Nexus – Obesity & Sustainable Development










Prof Dr Lucia Reisch, Chair of I Family Consumer Science WP writes ….

The World Health Summit that took place in Berlin (Germany) last year featured a full day session on the ‘health sustainability nexus’. I was surprised to find out that the discussion of wider issues such as obesity and malnutrition were now so widely accepted in public health debates within the context of sustainable development.   Already a decade ago, the British Commission on Sustainable Developmentdefined food systems as ‘sustainable’ if they (among other things)

  • produce safe, healthy products in response to market demands, and ensure that all consumers have access to nutritious food, and to accurate information about food products;
  • respect and operate within the biological limits of natural resources and biodiversity needs;
  • achieve consistently high standards of environmental performance by reducing energy consumption, by minimising resource inputs, and use renewable energy wherever possible.
  • sustain the resources available for growing food and supplying other public benefits over time, except where alternative land uses are essential to meet other needs of society.

The nexus becomes even clearer when we focus in on obesity as today’s major public health issue. Obesity is not only impairing individuals’ lives, but also societies’ sustainability with regard to its social, economic and environmental dimensions.

Social sustainability is jeopardized as social cohesion, equity and fairness erode due to the consequences of obesity. In the developed world, obesity is closely connected with low social economic status (i.e., low income, low education) and migrant background. Overweight and obese individuals are associated with deteriorating health, reduced mobility, poorer employment opportunities, premature mortality and higher living expenses resulting in an overall poorer quality of life. For the individuals involved, obesity may worsen qualify of life in the sense of poor self-image, social ostracism and stigma as well as a decline in life expectancy.

On the societal level, the economic consequences of obesity come in the form of increased healthcare costs and the labour market: National health systems bear the burden of obesity’s many co-morbidities, and obese individuals have lower employment rates, lower productivity with more sick days, and they earn considerably less.

Last but certainly not least, heavily processed, energy-dense, meat-focused modern diets have an undisputed heavy ecological footprint.

It is hence not surprising that putting a stop to the rise in obesity levels has become an explicit goal in political sustainability strategies.   Further information about the World Health Summit 2012 is available here. The 2013 World Health Summit will be held in Berlin 20-22 October 2013.

Lucia Reisch is Professor for Intercultural Consumer Behaviour and Consumer Policy at Copenhagen Business School in Copenhagen, Denmark. She chairs the Work Package “Consumer Science” in I Family.

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