top of page

Food Choices Sped Up "Global Boiling"; Equity Issues Limit Health Promotion Success -- Aug. 2, 2023

Heat Wave Rages, as More Do Accept the Science that Humans Are Changing the Climate, but How About Science on the Role of Humans' Diet?

43 years ago, Stevie Wonder wrote and sang:

Everyone's feeling pretty / It's hotter than July / Though the world's full of problems / They couldn't touch us even if they tried

But, NOTHING has ever been hotter than THIS July, and the world's problems are now INESCAPABLE for many millions, as much-feared future fire, drought, floods, mega-storms, famine or displacement are already reality for them. In today's news-cycle, the U.N. Secretary-General's "era of global boiling has arrived" comment is just the tip of the melting iceberg:

  • Multiple climate research organizations stated that the first three weeks of July were the hottest such period worldwide in recorded human history.

  • The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) estimated that July was probably the hottest month worldwide in 120,000 years.

  • 101.1 degree F water temperature measured late July in Manatee Bay, Florida is likely to be the highest reading ever taken in the world.

  • U. of Copenhagen's Niels Bohr Institute poses 95% certainty that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, which reroutes heat from the tropics to the north Atlantic, will fully collapse between 2025 and 2095 (probably by 2057).

  • WMO for the first time asserted over-50% (now 66%) likelihood that for at least one of the next five years the world average temperature will be more than 1.5 degrees C over 1850-1900 levels, symbolizing runaway acceleration of weather destabilization, of arctic ice melt, of sea level rise, of environmental upheaval, etc.

Activists struggle mightily against perennial opposition in industrial sectors and in many governments worldwide, to try to reduce future human use of non-renewable fuels for transportation, heating/cooling and manufacturing. Secretary-General Guterres bluntly warns again, as the 2015 Paris Agreement's 1.5 degree warming-limit goal drifts farther from achievability, "all actors must come together to accelerate a just and equitable transition from fossil fuels to renewables -- as we stop oil and gas expansion, and funding and licensing for new coal, oil and gas".

While human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are widely discussed as the key climate warming/destabilizing factor, one aspect of the human activity is too rarely mentioned regarding the emissions it's responsible for: eating. A body of research has documented well the greenhouse gas contributions from creating and getting-into-humans the foods necessary and/or chosen by them, and just one example is found in the article "Food systems are responsible for a third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions", Crippa et al, Nature Food, Vol. 2, March 2021, pp. 198-209. The authors concluded that food-system emissions represented 34% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, taking into account agriculture, land use, land use alteration, retail, transport, consumption, fuel production, waste management, industrial processes and packaging.

We are proud that seven past P-POD speakers have presented eloquently regarding the major role that human eating choices and food production activities have in influencing environmental health or degradation. Particularly, they have discussed how shifts from from largely animal-product based human diets toward much more plant-based diets would markedly reduce greenhouse gas production, global warming, climate destabilization, wildlife loss and ecosystem destruction. They are:

  • Irana Hawkins, PhD MPH RDN

  • Kathy Pollard, MS

  • David J. A. Jenkins, MD PhD DSc

  • Amanda E. McKinney, MD CPE FACLM FACOG

  • Andrea Wotan, MPH RDN CHWC

  • Sharon Palmer, MSFS RDN

  • Neha Pathak, MD FACP DipABLM

The following slide displayed by Andrea Wotan exemplified just the emissions-data comparisons across multiple foods, this time in proportion to protein content. As with a similar slide shown by Dr. Pathak, it had been a republication of the work of J. Poore and T. Nemecek.

A new article offers a fitting continuation to past distinguished scholarship about the varied planetary harms caused by animal-focused human diets. "Vegans, vegetarians, fish-eaters and meat-eaters in the UK show discrepant environmental impacts", by Peter Scarborough et al, published in Nature Food, Vol. 4, pp. 565–574 (2023), studied consumption data for 55,904 subjects while attempting to "account for variation in the environmental burden of food due to sourcing and production methods". The authors cross-referenced the dietary data with their analysis of the life cycles of foods, through 570 "assessments covering more than 38,000 farms in 119 countries".

Overall dietary impacts of the vegans (we'll show as V below) studied were found to be only the following percentages (with 95% confidence interval in parentheses) of those for the highest meat-eaters (we'll show as HME):

  • V 25.1% (15.1-37.0%) of HME: for greenhouse gas emissions.

  • V 25.1% (7.1-44.5%) of HME: for land use.

  • V 46.4% (21.0-81.0%) of HME: for water use.

  • V 27.0% (19.4-40.4%) of HME: for eutrophication.

  • V 34.3% (12.0-65.3%) of HME: for biodiversity.

The following graphic (the authors' Fig. 2) illustrates, for the emissions category only, the level of detail achieved in stratifying subjects according to their degree of animal-product consumption. The comparisons regarding methane are particularly eye-opening, considering that during the decades-long (not centuries-long) atmospheric lifespan that methane would actually have, it would exert a dozens-of-times-greater global warming effect than would carbon dioxide. The wealth of data in the rest of the article provides compelling insight about the eating choices' impact in each potential area of planetary damage studied.

This July 23rd Nature Food article is a fascinating read, and a convincing reminder that lifestyle choices that are replicated throughout a society have a powerful effect, for better or for worse, in driving demand that translates into environmentally health-promoting or health-sabotaging production activity. So, a planet-conscious Lifestyle Medicine movement would always seek to steer society away from animal-derived foodstuffs and away from the most heavily processed industrially-burdening foods.



There is a crucial flip side, the need to recognize that neither the privileges of healthful conditions nor the burdens of degraded surroundings are distributed uniformly or equitably. Due to unfortunate geographical location, race, poverty, societal marginalization or disparity of resource access for any reason, some individuals will feel catastrophic effects as planetary threats approach, while others are now and may long remain well insulated from crisis. And, on a personal-discretion level, some will have the leeway and capability to implement behaviors, such as for eating choices, shown to be optimal (for themselves AND the planet), and for others that may be impossible.

In fact, we might trustfully embrace the Six Pillars of Lifestyle Medicine as a theoretical bulwark in starting to address any patient or community health deficit, but a person's disparate habitat or opportunities could void the potential for any of them, as has been pointed out by Dr. Neha Pathak in speaking at P-POD. How may social determinants of impaired health aspiration challenge the Pillars? Some examples:

  • Whole food plant-based nutrition?

    • food deserts

    • lack of appropriate public transportation to reach food resources

    • absence of any space for growing vegetables

    • depending upon charity assistance for food

    • individual lack of adequate food storage or preparation facilities

  • Healthful physical activity?

    • lack of supportive settings for moving and working out:

      • safe suitable outdoor space

      • properly equipped indoor space

      • any accommodation for the differently abled

  • Adequate sleep?

    • nighttime noise or bright light pollution (from industrial surroundings or otherwise)

    • frequent parental-role interruptions

    • required night-shift or rotating-shift job work

  • Avoiding toxic/risky exposures?

    • air pollution indoors or out (even from nearby power plants)

    • water pollution from industrial activity

    • microbiological risk from hazardous workplaces (even slaughterhouses)

    • inadequate protective measures for other workplace exposures

    • poor individual protection from the impacts of weather

  • Social connection and stress reduction?

    • a community's lack of supportive settings:

      • safe welcoming space to gather and interact

      • soothing inspiring green space

      • shade-making urban tree canopy and sun/heat refuge

      • affordable mental health support services

      • affordable reliable child care services

    • possible fears of neighborhood or institutional violence

    • required outdoor job work without adequate weather protection, water breaks/availability, washroom facilities

    • "toxic" interpersonal job situations or harassment

    • being locked into financial adversity or uncertainty

The above list may be an arbitrary one, but it covers a great deal of ground regarding impediments to improved health for our population. Strikingly, for many of them, there could be a huge difference made through action at the community and institutional level, through policy-making, regulation or resource allocation! There are fruitful targets for activist work in every community. Just in July, while Texas temperatures exceeded 100 degrees F every day, the Texas governor and legislature pushed through a law stating that no employer could be required to make water breaks available to employees working outdoors! For anyone dedicated to health promotion and health equity, there is always much work to be done.

Persons practicing Lifestyle Medicine would have an opportunity to try to exercise future visionary and creative leadership at the community level, in addressing the social determinants of health, in showing others how quality-of-life benefits might more fairly be spread around.

As Dr. Pathak stated on June 11 at P-POD: "Like we learned with COVID, when you are taking care of the people who have the least access to these things, you are actually protecting the entire society, not just helping a vulnerable population." "If I am really really focused on Lifestyle Medicine as a way to optimize health, what can I do in MY community to bolster up these resources? What can I do to ensure access to these things?"


bottom of page