Fat Humans Are The Equivalent Of An Extra Half Billion People On Earth

The obesity crisis is usually framed in terms of health care costs, but in the context of biomass and food energy consumed, the world’s obese are creating a huge strain on the planet. And proportionally, most of them are in America.

Obesity isn’t just bad for individual health—or even the larger health care systems—it’s also a strain on the planet. A recent report from the British Medical Council looks at the effect of increased global fatness on world food energy demands—and finds that all those extra pounds could require as much food energy as another half billion people. This in turn could cause food prices to rise. The U.S., of course, is responsible for the bulk of the problem.

The researchers used existing data on body mass index (BMI) and height distribution to estimate average adult body mass, with total biomass calculated as the product of average body mass and population size. They then estimated the percentage of the population of major countries that are overweight or obese, as well as their average body mass. What they found is disturbing: in 2005, the global adult human biomass was about 287 million tons, 15 million of which can be traced back to overweight people, and 3.5 million of which are the result of obesity.

Not all of this extra biomass is distributed equally. North America has just 6% of the planet’s population, but 34% of its biomass comes from obesity. For some perspective, Asia has 61% of the world’s population and just 13% of biomass from obesity.

The Guardian has created a handy visualization, available here, to see the outsized proportion of human biomass in the U.S. (the country is the biggest circle). That little dot to the upper left of the U.S. is China.

Here’s the scariest part: If every country had the same body mass index distribution as the U.S., it would equal the equivalent in mass of an extra 935 million people of average BMI, with energy requirements for an additional 473 million people.

The rest of the world isn’t about to get as fat as the U.S. in the immediate future. But the trends point towards a fatter global future. Reports show that obesity is in the rise worldwide, with weight gain and malnutrition coexisting in many lower-income nations. With a growing world population already threatening the precarious ecological sustainability of the planet, we can’t exactly afford to have the current population gobbling up more than its fair share of resources. As the researchers conclude, "Tackling population fatness may be critical to world food security and ecological sustainability."

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  • xbox361

    clearly, we need to kill the obese.
    really, all Westerners.  They are the problem
    let Earth fall into subsistence  farming and hunting/gathering

    and fuck civilization
    it is so artificial and doesn't count.
    except for that special minority that will agree with the author.

  • icwhatudidthere

    How much of Asia (especially China and India) can be considered to be in poverty? Do you really think they're skinny by choice?

  • Eric Freeman

    The title is very misleading.  According to the article's data, obesity is only equivalent to 25 million extra people.  

  • Tom Foolery

    Lots of different kinds of people cost more resources to support. People on the autism spectrum, people with physical disabilities, the elderly, the very young, etc. -- they all require more resources. Some of them end up producing a commensurate amount, some don't. But the approach this research -- and this article -- takes is that these problematic people just need to figure out ways to cost less. That's one approach, and, in general, it's an approach favored by societies that look at people as collectives, and hold the physical and mental wellbeings of individuals fairly cheaply.  

    Another approach is figuring out how each individual can contribute more to the resources we have, and figuring out how we can create a society that supports as many different types of people as possible. People get fat for a lot of reasons, just like people are impoverished or disabled for a lot of reasons. "Hey! Hurry up and get better!" is not a workable solution for many.

    Though I guess if you want "No Fatties" to be among your society's core principles, that's cool too. I prefer "No Judgemental Assholes." 

  • JSP

    Well said Tom Foolery.  What a condescending, arrogant, and judgmental article.  It would do her well to do some additional research on the real reasons behind the obesity epidemic.  See Mercola.com for starters.

  • Wize Adz

    Yup yup yup, so what do you do about it?

    Eat less, move more.  Sounds simple, but it requires constant attention and connecting thousands of tiny and almost inconsequential decisions with one big remote goal.

    One big barrier for me personally is fitness culture.  I've never clicked culturally with gyms, or running groups.  I was excluded/repelled by high-school athletic culture and decided to spend my time learning how to be world-class in my profession, rather than hanging around with those jerks. But what I learned doesn't didn't weight control.

    I think I've finally got a handle on it, though.  I've decided to care, and I've managed to keep caring by taking geeky page from the Quantified Self people.  I'm using electronic gadgets and smartphone apps to keep score on how I'm doing with fitness.  It seems to be working really well, too.  I'm down 8lbs in a month, and I'm actually in control of the situation this time.  I have enough data from the electronic gadgets to continually adjust my exercise and eating in real-time, and I'm more physically active than I've been during pretty much any other part of my adult life. 

    I'm guessing that there need to be a lot of approaches to weight management.  Some people do just fine driving to the gym, or with sports.  Some people seem to do well with electronic scorekeepers.  Some people need a support group.  I'm sure there are other ways to do this.  I'm just happy that I'm in the driver's seat for a change.