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Western Diet Bad for Human Health, Environment

A Chinese man takes a photo with Ronald McDonald at a McDonald's fast food restaurant in China's northern Liaoning province. (2011 File Photo)
Western Diet Bad for Human Health, Environment
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From VOA Learning English, this is the Health Report.

The spread of Western eating habits around the world is bad for human health and for the environment. Those findings come from a new report in the journal Nature.

There are ways to solve this diet-health-environment problem. But they will require a change in eating habits. And what we eat can be a product of culture, personal taste, price and ease.

David Tilman is a professor of ecology at the University of Minnesota. In the study, he examined information from 100 countries to identify what people ate and how diet affected health.

Mr. Tilman noted a movement beginning in the 1960s. He found that as nations industrialized, population increased and earnings rose. More people began to adopt what has been called the Western diet.

The Western diet is high in refined, or processed, sugar, fat, oil and meat. By eating these foods, people began to get fatter -- and sicker.

Too many calories and not enough exercise is not a healthy combination.
Too many calories and not enough exercise is not a healthy combination.

“The excess, let us say, in the 15 richest nations of the world, right now is on the order of about 400 or 500 extra calories a day that are eaten beyond what people need, and that leads people to gain weight.”

David Tillman says overweight people are at greater risk for non-infectious diseases like diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

“Diabetes is shooting to very high rates in the United States and across Europe. Heart disease is a major cause of mortality in the Western countries. Unfortunately when people become industrialized, if they adopt this Western diet, they are going to have these same health impacts, and in some cases if you are Asian, you have them more severely than even happens in the West.”

China, he says, is an example where the number of diabetes cases has jumped.

“... from less than one percent to 10 percent of the population having diabetes as they began to industrialize over a 20-year period. And that has not leveled off yet. That is still going up. And that is happening all across the world, in Mexico, in Nigeria and so on, just nation after nation.”

A growing generation of Puerto Rican children struggle with weight gain. (Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. April 2007)
A growing generation of Puerto Rican children struggle with weight gain. (Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. April 2007)

And, a diet bad for human beings, it seems, is also bad for the environment. As the world’s population grows, experts say more forests and tropical areas will become farmland for crops or grasslands for grazing cattle. These areas will be needed to meet the increasing demand for food.

“We are likely to have more greenhouse gas released in the future from agriculture because of this dietary shift than all the greenhouse gas that right now comes out of all the cars, and all of the airplanes, boats and ships, all forms of transportation. So our change in diet is likely to be worse for the world for climate warming than all the transportation sources we use right now.”

Mr. Tilman calls the link between diet, the environment and human health, “a trilemma.” This is a play on the word “dilemma” -- a problem offering a difficult choice. He says one possible solution is leaving the Western diet behind.

I’m Anna Matteo.

VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reported this story from Washington, D.C. Anna Matteo wrote it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

graze ­– v. (of cattle, sheep, etc...) eat grass in a field

dilemma n. a situation in which you have to make a difficult choice