Comparing eggs to cigarettes

Eggs are one of the most concentrated sources of cholesterol in the American diet, but how much does that dietary cholesterol actually impact blood cholesterol and heart disease risk? A recent study investigated egg consumption and cigarette smoking in relation to atherosclerotic plaque in the carotid artery – headlines proclaimed “Egg yolks almost as bad as smoking.” Is this a valid assessment of the data? Let’s look at all the science on eggs and heart disease and find out.

Egg. Flickr: stevendepolo

First, how much does the dietary cholesterol found in egg yolks impact blood cholesterol?
Many studies have investigated this, and the consensus is that dietary cholesterol does raise serum total cholesterol somewhat, but to a very small degree compared with dietary saturated or trans fat.1, 2 Dietary cholesterol elevates serum LDL and HDL cholesterol; meta-analysis of several studies showed that the dietary cholesterol from eggs is associated with an increase in the ratio of total to HDL (“good”) cholesterol, which is an indicator of increased cardiovascular risk. These authors reported that the cholesterol from 3-4 eggs per week would elevate total:HDL ratio an amount estimated to translate into 2.1% increase in heart attack risk.3 A small increase in risk, but still an increase.

Are people that eat more eggs more likely to have heart attacks and strokes?
Because of eggs’ high cholesterol content, many observational studies have relied on egg consumption as a marker of cholesterol intake. These previous studies have not shown a clear increase in heart attack, stroke, or death from cardiovascular disease in those who eat the most eggs. The Physicians’ Health Study, however, reported a 23% increase in death risk in those who ate more than one egg/day.4 Interestingly, these studies have consistently found that diabetics (who are already at increased risk) who eat more eggs do increase their risk – by a lot. The Nurses’ Health Study, Health Professionals Follow-up Study, and Physicians’ Health Study reported that diabetics who eat more than one egg/day double their cardiovascular disease or death risk compared to diabetics that ate less than one egg per week.5,6 A Greek study of diabetics reported a 5-fold increase in cardiovascular death risk in those eating one egg/day or more.7 Collectively from these data, we can conclude that eggs are likely only to be dangerous in large quantities (more than one egg/day) for healthy individuals, but could be more problematic for populations at risk of cardiovascular disease, such as diabetics. Interestingly, eating 5 eggs/week or more is also associated with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes (not to mention prostate cancer).8,9

In contrast, cigarette smoking is very clearly linked to heart disease, stroke, and death. Cigarette smoking is estimated to cause over 400,000 deaths per year in the U.S. alone, one-third of which are related to cardiovascular disease.10

The new study – eggs, cigarettes, and carotid plaque area
Twelve-hundred patients answered questionnaires on their diet and lifestyle, and had ultrasound-based measurements of their total carotid artery plaque area, a strong predictor of future cardiovascular events.11 The authors found similar steep increases in plaque area with increasing “pack-years” of smoking (number of packs/day multiplied by number of years of smoking) and “egg-yolk years” (number of egg yolks/week multiplied by number of years consumed). Importantly, egg yolk consumption and smoking history were not significantly correlated – this means that the people that ate the most eggs were not necessarily the ones who smoked the most. Since carotid plaque area increased more steeply with egg-yolk years and pack-years than with age, the authors concluded that both factors accelerate plaque development. The group with the greatest number of egg-yolk years (200 or more) had plaque development equivalent to 2/3 that of those with the greatest number of pack-years of smoking (more than 40). For example, the data suggests that someone who had eaten 5 eggs/week for 40 years would have 2/3 the amount of plaque as someone who smoked one pack of cigarettes a day for 40 years, other factors being equal.

In addition, they found that subjects eating more than 3 eggs/week (compared to less than 2 eggs/week) had significantly more carotid plaque area – even after statistical controls for a number of factors, including serum cholesterol. This indicates that eggs may increase atherosclerotic plaque development in ways unrelated to elevating blood cholesterol.

The bottom line on eggs
Eggs do contribute some vitamins and minerals and are likely one of the better choices when it comes to animal foods.12 However, there is no nutritional advantage for getting vitamin A/ carotenoids, folate, minerals, etc. from eggs rather than from plant foods. Plus, eggs are extremely rich in animal protein, which is not health-promoting. Although previous studies have not seen increased cardiovascular risk in individuals eating up to one egg/day, the new study has identified increased carotid artery plaque in individuals eating 3 eggs/week or more. Taking all this research into account, and comparing to the sobering statistics on cigarette smoking, “eggs are almost as bad as smoking” is probably an overstatement; however, eggs may be more harmful to cardiovascular health than the earlier studies suggested; larger, long-term studies will help to determine the magnitude of risk associated with eggs. If you are at risk of cardiovascular disease, the potential risks of egg consumption must be considered. The associations of eggs with diabetes and prostate cancer must also be considered.


Those with diabetes or cardiovascular disease or at high risk for these conditions (overweight or high cholesterol) should not eat eggs, though 1-2 eggs per week in a slim, healthy individual who is not eating many other animal products is unlikely to be harmful.

 

Image credit: Flickr - stevendepolo

References:

1. Clarke R, Frost C, Collins R, et al. Dietary lipids and blood cholesterol: quantitative meta-analysis of metabolic ward studies. BMJ 1997;314:112-117.
2. Howell WH, McNamara DJ, Tosca MA, et al. Plasma lipid and lipoprotein responses to dietary fat and cholesterol: a meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr 1997;65:1747-1764.
3. Weggemans RM, Zock PL, Katan MB. Dietary cholesterol from eggs increases the ratio of total cholesterol to high-density lipoprotein cholesterol in humans: a meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr 2001;73:885-891.
4. Djousse L, Gaziano JM. Egg consumption in relation to cardiovascular disease and mortality: the Physicians' Health Study. Am J Clin Nutr 2008;87:964-969.
5. Qureshi AI, Suri FK, Ahmed S, et al. Regular egg consumption does not increase the risk of stroke and cardiovascular diseases. Med Sci Monit 2007;13:CR1-8.
6. Hu FB, Stampfer MJ, Rimm EB, et al. A prospective study of egg consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease in men and women. JAMA 1999;281:1387-1394.
7. Trichopoulou A, Psaltopoulou T, Orfanos P, et al. Diet and physical activity in relation to overall mortality amongst adult diabetics in a general population cohort. J Intern Med 2006;259:583-591.
8. Djousse L, Gaziano JM, Buring JE, et al. Egg consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes in men and women. Diabetes Care 2009;32:295-300.
9. Richman EL, Kenfield SA, Stampfer MJ, et al. Egg, red meat, and poultry intake and risk of lethal prostate cancer in the prostate-specific antigen-era: incidence and survival. Cancer Prev Res (Phila) 2011;4:2110-2121.
10. Roger VL, Go AS, Lloyd-Jones DM, et al. Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics--2012 Update: A Report From the American Heart Association. Circulation 2012;125:e2-e220.
11. Spence JD, Eliasziw M, DiCicco M, et al. Carotid plaque area: a tool for targeting and evaluating vascular preventive therapy. Stroke 2002;33:2916-2922.
12. Applegate E. Introduction: nutritional and functional roles of eggs in the diet. J Am Coll Nutr 2000;19:495S-498S.

 

 

 

Interview with a Nutritarian: Esther

 

 

Esther Boller is one cool chica. As a lover of fashion myself, I knew I had to get to know this rising star in the art and fashion world who also happens to be a model nutritarian. While just 17-years-old, Esther has already proven that she has the talent to compete with the best and brightest in fashion and film. Esther recently won a National Gold Medal in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for her Masking Tape Dress - made completely out of masking tape!  Winning this award is no small feat. It is a prestigious award dating back to 1923 and has been previously granted to artistic greats such as Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Robert Redford and Joyce Carol Oates.

Esther continues to increase exposure in the fashion and modeling industry and this spring she was the cover girl model winner for Mode Republic. In addition to all of these achievements, she also won the Scholastic National American Vision Award for her short film, “Dreams are Sails”. Over 200,000 students entered the various Scholastics competitions, and she traveled to New York City in June to accept her awards at a national ceremony in Carnegie Hall.

Wow! So while I’m completely impressed by her skills in the world of aesthetics, I’m equally impressed by her healthy eating habits. After speaking with her on the phone, I learned that she’s been committed to following the nutritarian lifestyle since December 2011 and has never felt better. Let’s get to know this inspiring girl better. Welcome to Disease Proof, Esther!  

 

 

What was your life like before following Dr. Fuhrman’s nutritarian eating-style?

While always a pretty healthy eater and ate better than most teenagers, I was far from perfect. I loved fruits and vegetables, but I also ate pizza, breads, cookies and sweets regularly. I’ve always had a sweet tooth and this meant plenty of sugar in my diet. In August 2011 I began suffering from dizzy spells combined with intense headaches once or twice each week and they would last for over 20 minutes. I would become so overwhelmed with a sensation of spinning that I would instantly have to stop whatever I was doing, sit down, and put my head between my knees until it would stop. Each week they increased in intensity, frequency and length to the point that they were greatly incapacitating. I could never anticipate when an episode would happen, and they started to occur every other day so I began living in fear of them; especially when I was driving the car or out in public.

My mom took me to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist last December, and after an initial hearing test ruled out an inner ear imbalance, the doctor wanted to do a bunch of expensive diagnostic tests, physical therapy, and possibly put me on meds. I knew that I didn’t want to take drugs as I’ve seen first hand the negative side effects of mind altering meds. No way. So when Dr. Fuhrman suggested that I eat 100% perfectly, even starting a week before Christmas, I was willing to do anything to get better. I couldn’t let the dizzy spells and headaches, or the negative side effects of drugs stop me from achieving my dreams.

  

How do you feel now?

A few weeks after committing to the nutritarian lifestyle, the spinning episodes and headaches became less intense and I felt them less frequently. After two months they completely disappeared. Now, besides having no more dizzy spells or headaches, I’m not as tired anymore and have lots more energy. This last spring semester I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to focus on schoolwork with enhanced alertness and simply have more vigor in daily living. I never had terrible skin, but I don’t get acne or pimples like I did sometimes in the past.

 

What has surprised you about following a nutritarian diet?

It is so easy and I enjoy it much more than I expected. I liked fruits and vegetables before, but didn’t love them like I do now. I didn’t think I would enjoy eating kale, but now I adore it! I’ve become much more creative in the kitchen and one of my favorite meals is a salad with homemade bean salsa on top.   When I crave something sweet, I whip up a banana ice cream made with bananas, other fruits and non-dairy milk. My friends are pretty accepting of the way I eat, and when I visit my friends' houses and they offer me junk foods, I explain that I have to follow a special diet for health reasons. It’s definitely not as hard as I thought to say no to conventional American foods. 

 

Do you have advice for other young people attempting to improve their diets?

Yes! Don’t be afraid of trying new foods. You’d be surprised how great vegetable and fruit dishes can taste! As I mentioned, I’d never been a huge kale fan, but after eating it more and experimenting with different cooking techniques and recipes, it’s become one of my favorite vegetables. My taste buds have certainly changed as I’ve made the switch to a 100 percent nutritarian lifestyle and I now crave large salads, which was something I didn’t expect. 

I’ve also found it helpful to have a variety of different fruits and vegetables stocked in the refrigerator. Fruits and vegetables can be a little bit boring after a while, so it’s nice to try out new recipes. When I first started, my mom and I tried out a bunch of recipes and found ones that I really enjoy and make all the time now. There are so many ways to cook fruits and vegetables!

 

In a nutshell, what has nutritarian eating done for you?

I look forward to my future now without the fear of scary, dizzy spells, headaches, or taking drugs for the rest of my life. Nothing feels better than that! 

 

 

Image credits: self-portrait in car by Esther Boller;  Carnegie Hall ceremony taken by Ruth Yaroslaski

Omega-3 fatty acids: are supplements truly necessary for optimal brain health?

Greater intake of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) is associated with decreased risk of brain disorders (such as Alzheimer’s disease) and cardiovascular disease.1-3 DHA is a crucial factor in early brain development because it is a major constituent of cell membranes in the brain, retina, and nervous system. There is significant evidence in the fossil record that a increase in DHA availability in the diet of early humans was responsible for the expansion of the brain into the large, complex organ it has now become.4,5 DHA requirements are the greatest in the developing brain during the last trimester of pregnancy and the first two years of life. During early life, a baby’s only source of this building block of brain and eye tissue is its mother’s milk.6,7 Several studies have documented improved cognitive scores in breastfed infants compared to formula-fed infants, prompting supplementation of infant formula with DHA in the U.S.8 But what if the “normal” amount of DHA in American women’s breast milk is still not enough? What if the developing brain requires more DHA for optimal cognitive development?

A recent study compared the fatty acid content of breast milk in American women in Cincinnati to that of Tsimane women of Bolivia. Tsimane women eat a traditional diet of primarily locally grown plant foods, wild-caught animals, and freshwater fish. The results of the study showed that the DHA concentration of Tsimane mothers’ milk was 400% higher than that of Cincinnati mothers, their concentration of linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid abundant in oils) was 84% lower, and their concentration of trans fat was 260% lower than in Cincinnati mothers.9,10 In a previous analysis, pooling data from 84 studies of breast milk DHA concentrations in many different countries, the U.S. concentrations fell below the worldwide average. The areas with the highest breast milk DHA concentrations were coastal or island nations, suggesting that breast milk DHA concentration is closely linked to the consumption of fish.11

Our modern eating habits have transformed the fatty acid distribution of our diet.12 One of the study’s authors, Steven Gaulin, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, noted "The American diet is eroding one of the most important benefits breast milk can provide –– fats that are critical to infant brain development. It's not surprising that, among developed nations, American children are last on international tests of math and science."9

What is the “normal” DHA of content of human breast milk – or rather, the amount that will ideally support brain development in infants? We don’t know for sure. However, these huge differences between a traditional diet and a modern diet, and the high DHA concentrations in high fish-consuming countries indicate that the DHA intake of Americans may be sub-optimal for supporting brain health. The American diet is low in DHA, and high in vegetable oils and trans fats, which limit the elongation of ALA from plant foods into DHA and EPA, and displaces omega-3 fats from cell membranes.4,13 Factory-farmed meats, oils and trans fats are not the appropriate fatty fuel to grow a baby’s brain.

Does this mean that we should eat fish? From the evidence we have now, if you eat with a modern diet (even without oils) and you don’t eat fish regularly, it is almost impossible to have adequate DHA stores, especially for pregnant and nursing women.

Avoiding oils and eating plenty of hemp, chia, flax, walnuts, and leafy greens is likely still not enough, since the conversion rate of ALA (short-chain omega-3) in these foods to DHA (long-chain omega-3) is very low. Large increases in ALA intake have been shown to produce only very slight increases in long-chain omega-3 blood levels. Plus, much of the ALA we consume is burned for energy, not converted to DHA or EPA.14,15

However, modern fish is a heavily polluted food that I do not recommend eating regularly. The DHA in fish may benefit the brain, but the fatty tissues of fish is highly contaminated with mercury, and other pollutants, which could be toxic to the brain and may also contribute to cardiovascular disease.16,17 In addition to the potential effects of mercury on human health, huge declines in wild fish populations have been reported since the 1950s, and populations continue to decline as the purported benefits of fish consumption on heart and brain health increase the demand for fish and fish oils.18 Fish is not an ideal source of DHA; fortunately DHA derived from lab-grown algae is available as a supplement.

One can't really be sure they have ideal levels of omega-3 anymore without supplements. If you eat enough fish to idealize your omega-3 ratio, you get too much mercury, dioxin, and other pollutants. I think it is sensible and conservative to err on the side of caution and eat a diet that contains ALA from flax, chia, walnuts and leafy greens, not merely because of their ALA content, but also for their anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects. Then adding a supplement of a clean algae-derived DHA is a wise insurance policy. Significant evidence suggests that a comparatively small amount of DHA and EPA can add health protection without the potential drawbacks of high dose fish oil capsules.19-21

 

 References:

1. Yurko-Mauro K. Cognitive and cardiovascular benefits of docosahexaenoic acid in aging and cognitive decline. Curr Alzheimer Res 2010;7:190-196.
2. Yurko-Mauro K, McCarthy D, Rom D, et al. Beneficial effects of docosahexaenoic acid on cognition in age-related cognitive decline. Alzheimers Dement 2010.
3. Kris-Etherton PM, Harris WS, Appel LJ. Fish consumption, fish oil, omega-3 fatty acids, and cardiovascular disease. Circulation 2002;106:2747-2757.
4. Crawford MA, Broadhurst CL. The role of docosahexaenoic and the marine food web as determinants of evolution and hominid brain development: the challenge for human sustainability. Nutr Health 2012;21:17-39.
5. Bradbury J. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): an ancient nutrient for the modern human brain. Nutrients 2011;3:529-554.
6. Ryan AS, Astwood JD, Gautier S, et al. Effects of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation on neurodevelopment in childhood: a review of human studies. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 2010;82:305-314.
7. Kidd PM. Omega-3 DHA and EPA for cognition, behavior, and mood: clinical findings and structural-functional synergies with cell membrane phospholipids. Altern Med Rev 2007;12:207-227.
8. Hoffman DR, Boettcher JA, Diersen-Schade DA. Toward optimizing vision and cognition in term infants by dietary docosahexaenoic and arachidonic acid supplementation: a review of randomized controlled trials. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 2009;81:151-158.
9. UCSB anthropologists finds high levels of omega-3 fatty acids in breast milk of Amerindian women. 2012. EurekAlert! http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-06/uoc--uaf060812.php. Accessed August 15, 2012.
10. Martin MA, Lassek WD, Gaulin SJ, et al. Fatty acid composition in the mature milk of Bolivian forager-horticulturalists: controlled comparisons with a US sample. Matern Child Nutr 2012;8:404-418.
11. Brenna JT, Varamini B, Jensen RG, et al. Docosahexaenoic and arachidonic acid concentrations in human breast milk worldwide. Am J Clin Nutr 2007;85:1457-1464.
12. Blasbalg TL, Hibbeln JR, Ramsden CE, et al. Changes in consumption of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the United States during the 20th century. Am J Clin Nutr 2011.
13. Harnack K, Andersen G, Somoza V. Quantitation of alpha-linolenic acid elongation to eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid as affected by the ratio of n6/n3 fatty acids. Nutr Metab 2009;6:8.
14. Arterburn LM, Hall EB, Oken H. Distribution, interconversion, and dose response of n-3 fatty acids in humans. Am J Clin Nutr 2006;83:1467S-1476S.
15. Fokkema MR, Brouwer DA, Hasperhoven MB, et al. Short-term supplementation of low-dose gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), or GLA plus ALA does not augment LCP omega 3 status of Dutch vegans to an appreciable extent. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 2000;63:287-292.
16. Rice GE, Hammitt JK, Evans JS. A probabilistic characterization of the health benefits of reducing methyl mercury intake in the United States. Environmental science & technology 2010;44:5216-5224.
17. Virtanen JK, Rissanen TH, Voutilainen S, et al. Mercury as a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases. The Journal of nutritional biochemistry 2007;18:75-85.
18. Myers RA, Worm B. Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities. Nature 2003;423:280-283.
19. Musa-Veloso K, Binns MA, Kocenas A, et al: Impact of low v. moderate intakes of long-chain n-3 fatty acids on risk of coronary heart disease. Br J Nutr 2011.
20. Thies F, Nebe-von-Caron G, Powell JR, et al. Dietary supplementation with eicosapentaenoic acid, but not with other long-chain n-3 or n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, decreases natural killer cell activity in healthy subjects aged >55 y. Am J Clin Nutr. 2001 Mar;73(3):539-48.
21. Linus Pauling Institute: Essential Fatty Acids. http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/othernuts/omega3fa/


 

The 90 Percent Rule

One of the most popular and misunderstood  topics in Dr. Fuhrman’s book, Eat to Live, is the famous 90 Percent Rule for adopting the nutritarian eating-style for life, and every person has his / her own interpretation of it:

“I eat healthy for a week, and then I celebrate.”

“I try to eat healthy, but I know I have that 10% to fall back on if I want to.”

“I use that 10% for when I eat out, because I know I’ll have salty foods and dessert.” 

“I’m not that hardcore following Eat to Live, after all, Dr. Fuhrman even said that we can cheat 10% of the time.”  

 

For those unfamiliar with the 90 Percent Rule, starting on page 223 of Eat to Live, Dr. Fuhrman wrote about it, and I’ll highlight below a few points that many misuse as a free-for-all license to go back to the standard American diet at liberty.  

 

  • For longevity and weight loss, the Life Plan diet should aim to be made up of at least 90 percent unrefined plant foods. My most successful patients treat processed foods and animal foods as condiments, constituting no more than 10 percent of their total caloric intake.

  • To hold to the 90 percent rule, I recommend women consume no more than 150 calories per day of low-nutrient food, or about 1,000 calories weekly. Men should not consume more than 200 calories of low-nutrient food daily, or about 1,400 calories weekly.

  • Using the 90 percent rule, you are allowed to eat almost any kind of food, even a small cookie or candy bar, as long as all your other calories that day are from nutrient-dense vegetation.    

     

 

Let’s set the record straight. The 90 Percent Rule is not the excuse to intentionally cheat. There is no valid reason to consume the worst foods that we can get our hands on, because junk food kills and perpetuates more food addiction.

The 10 percent allowance of low-nutrient foods is permissible; however, Dr. Fuhrman never intended for that to be the license for cheating, or anything close to that mindset.  He would prefer that everyone eat 100% of high-nutrient foods for the best health that’s possible. However, he also realizes that optimal health is not everyone’s priority, and everyone has that right to choose their own health destiny by the foods they select. 

Eating 100% high-nutrient foods is most beneficial for breaking food addictions, and eradicating obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and a myriad of other diseases. 

Most of us have been consuming fake foods our entire lives so consuming 100% high-nutrient foods is especially crucial for us to reverse years of damage already done within our bodies. Dr. Fuhrman has stated that we may “look healthy” on the outside when we are close to an ideal weight, but we still have much damage on the cellular level to heal and restore due to years and years of conventional eating abuse. 

It’s not a matter of how far one can push a boundary line and get by with it, but how much one desires to heal damaged cells and feel alive and well; excited to be alive! 

Scrupulous, yes.

Sensible, absolutely.

Who in their right mind would want obesity, cancer, heart disease, depression, dementia, arthritis, or diabetes at retirement age?

With that being said, living in the best health that’s possible is totally one’s personal choice. If one wants to repeatedly eat traditional holiday meals; or pizza, chips and cake at parties; or ice cream blizzards on the way home from work; or glazed donuts at Sunday School; or buckets of buttered popcorn and boxes of candy at the movies; and then feel crappy, crabby and bloated; plus feed cancer cells and blow out precious beta cells in the process, no one is going to care. It’s one’s personal choice. Each person is in control of his or her own health destiny. 

 

So does Dr. Fuhrman himself follow the 90 Percent Rule?

 

 “What do you think I’m crazy?! My father had leukemia, why would I want to put 10 percent low quality food in my body? That is just for people who can’t yet grasp that nutritarian food tastes better and is more enjoyable to eat, and is the food we actually prefer to eat. Nevertheless, this is not a religion, and if on a rare occasion I want to have something conventional that is delicious, I can.”  

 

Be wise. Use good judgment and always be in control of your health destiny, 100% of the time!

 

[The obese belly above was mine a few years ago when I was in my 40's.  Now I'm 51-years-old and feeling younger & healthier than twenty years ago!]

U.S. Population Fatness Threatens Global Environmental Sustainability

We all know that the world’s ever growing population is putting a massive strain on the Earth’s finite resources.  After all, the world’s current human population is 7 billion and is expected to rise to between 8.9 and 10.5 billion by the year 2050.  Compare this to the 350 million people on the planet at the end of the Great Famine and the Black Death of 1350 and it becomes truly striking how many more mouths have to be fed, shelters need to be built, and fresh water must be retrieved (among numerous other resources) today versus less than 700 hundred years ago.  Homo Sapiens have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, but there have simply never been so many people.

Earth

Those figures are nothing new and what I’ve just written certainly isn’t groundbreaking.  However, what might foster a new perspective on population growth is that it’s not just the number of humans that matter when it comes to environmental sustainability, it’s how much we all weigh.  Recent research published in BioMed Central’s open access journal BMC Public Health has estimated total mass of the human population, defined its distribution by region, and the proportion of this biomass due to those who are overweight and obese.

Increased mass equates to higher energy requirements simply because it takes more energy to move a heavy body and more food to sustain that size.  Even while resting, a bigger body needs more calories than a smaller one. 

Employing data from the United Nations and World Health Organization, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have concluded that the adult human population weights over 316 million tons, of which 7 million tons are due to the overweight and 4 million tons to the obese. The average body mass globally was 137 pounds, yet the average body mass in the United Statues was 178 pounds. This is quite an increase in weight! Startlingly, the United States has 6% of the world’s population but 34% of the world’s biomass due to obesity.  In contrast, Asia has 61% of the world’s population but only 13% of the world’s biomass due to obesity.   

If all countries had the same average BMI as the United States, the total human biomass would increase by 64 million tons, which is the equivalent of the addition of 935 million people of world average body mass.  This study makes it clear that we need to begin thinking about population growth and population fatness if we are to effectively address this impending pickle of too few resources on a planet that cannot cater to the growing demands we place on it.

Foods that promote fatness tend to be the same foods that are most environmentally unsustainable.  Vegans, on average, are slimmer than omnivores and meat requires much more energy to produce than plant foods.  Professor Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba, Canada conducted research showing that beef cattle raised on factory farms convert as little as 2.5% of their gross feed energy into food for human consumption.  So, being fat raises resource requirements per person as does the production of foods that incline individuals towards obesity. Given that most livestock are fed human-edible grains that could be used to feed hungry people (there are currently 1 billion people lacking enough food to eat), this is especially damning.  Livestock production exceeds 21 billion animals each year and when the simple math is done, this means that there are more than three and a half times as many animals killed for human consumption than there are humans on the planet. A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has shown that livestock are now consuming six times more food than dinosaurs ever did.1

So, not only is being overweight or obese bad for our health, the growing demand for meat (and tragic for all those animals) is bad for the health of the planet. When we think about environmental sustainability and how we want to leave planet Earth for future generations, we need to begin thinking about what foods we are eating and how much.  I discussed population fatness in this article, but didn’t even touch upon black carbon, nitrous oxide, methane, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released from raising livestock and the strong link between factory farming, and the rate of global temperature rise.  The same foods that are healthiest for us are also healthiest for the planet. Some people reading this blog might only be interested in health and not environmental sustainability or animals. But these issues go hand in hand; we cannot expect ourselves and our children to live a long and healthy life without a healthy planet to sustain us.   We are all in the same bed together and the health of our planet requires a change in eating habits of all, especially in America. 



1. UNFAO (2006). Livestock’s Long Shadow. UN Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO). Retrieved from: ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/a0701e/a0701e00.pdf

Video: Texas doctor (and diet book author) chooses Eat to Live to help his patients lose weight

A news station recently followed the story of family practice physician Dr. Douglas Cluff of Irving, Texas, who places a copy of my book Eat to Live in every exam room. Dr. Cluff published his own book on healthy eating and weight loss in 2007, but now advises patients that need to lose weight to follow the Eat to Live program.  I have never heard of this doctor before and do not know him, but I applaud him. He obviously is a warm and caring individual and very special physician. I am grateful for his support and enthusiasm to do the best for his patients, and proud of him and other very dedicated family physicians, many who set a high bar for ethics and compassion.

Read the news story here.

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