Stories of research, nutrition, and nature

Saving the world

While waiting to get my hands on an extremely interesting dataset, I’ve had some time to generate ideas and check if someone else has already implemented them. Most of the time that has been the case. Of course, the world is getting so old that there probably are no new ideas anymore lying around to be discovered. Reuse, recycle – that’s a virtue too.

Anyway, I happened to come across an article that struck a chord in me: “Save the world, prevent obesity” by Thomas N. Robinson. He talks about social and ideological movements with behavioral goals that can also help to prevent obesity. For instance, the growing awareness of the finity of natural resources has compelled many people to change their eating and physical activity behaviors. The main reason for this is not a desire to be healthier, it’s just a side effect of the changes that are driven by ideology.

For example, not all vegetarians are vegetarians just because they think that animals are too cute to slice and dice, or that animals taste bad. Some avoid eating meat because it takes about nine times more energy to produce a pound of (red) meat compared to vegetables, grain, beans, or seeds. Ethics and health (for intensively produced meat; the thought of digesting something that’s been stuffed with antibiotics and hormones isn’t particularly enjoyable) are just additional factors that make it easier to stick to the decision. Similarly, walking and using public transportation can be means to keep the carbon footprint small. Increase in physical activity is a nice side effect.

People aren’t motivated by their personal health until they’ve lost it, as we’ve known for a long time. Our values and other interests play a much bigger role in determining what we choose to do every day and how we prioritize things. After all, health is just your own responsibility, whereas pursuing other values usually have social and societal consequences. So, focus on saving the world (without going to extremes) and you save your health too as a by-product?

The cause that you are fighting for doesn’t necessarily have to be environmental sustainability or social justice. For instance, taking care of kids’ healthy eating is an extremely valuable goal, and that’s what these guys at Smarter Lunchrooms are doing. I think it’s great how they’re truly improving population health with simple, low-cost changes.

UPDATE August 2017: Five years later, it seems that Smarter Lunchrooms isn’t the silver bullet it was claimed to be, and the research about it hasn’t been reported objectively. See, for example, http://reason.com/blog/2017/08/29/junk-science-behind-smarter-lunchrooms.

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