The Effects of Excess Energy Consumption on Environmental and Human Health

The demand and intake of food has escalated over the recent years, resulting in more individuals consuming excess amounts of food in relation to their needs. Not only is this harming the health of the population through chronic weight gain, even the environment is falling victim to the high intake of food due to the increase of greenhouse gas emissions and waste of natural resources.

Our Food System

The food system explains the connective nature of all steps required to get food from its natural state to the demanding and growing population (1). A good food system is a vital component in ensuring adults and children can get access to safe, healthy, ethical, and environmentally friendly food (2). Manufacturing, processing, distribution, marketing, purchasing, consumption, and disposal of waste are all key operations of the food system. The food system involves an important connection between the environment and human health, which in a perfect world would act on each other to create an equilibrium where a thriving planet provides healthy, nourishing food to promote healthy human beings. However, the reality is far from this with a cycle of poor eating choices, large amounts of waste, climate change, increased green-house gas emissions and contaminated resources are creating an unhealthy and unsustainable food system. The ‘Anthropocene Epoch’ is the period from when human activity began to have detrimental side effects on the planet and its ecosystems, when the food system started to become unhealthy and unsustainable.

A healthy and sustainable food system is one that equally promotes the health and wellbeing of humans while protecting and stimulating the environment (3). The action of consuming excess amounts of food does not cohere with the idea of a sustainable food system as it does not allow for the preservation of resources for future generations. To achieve this ideal state, humans can begin following the four pillars for a healthy and sustainable food system; reduce animal-based foods, reduce ultra-processed discretionary foods, promote a balanced dietary intake, and reduce food waste.

Bidirectional relationship between the food system and environmental sustainability

In 2017, 37% of the worlds land was used for agriculture (4). The Australian Health Survey and an input-output model of green-house gas emissions (GHGe) shows the clear trend between total GHGe increasing as energy intake increases per individual (5). There was also an association between different food groups and their amount of GHGe, with discretionary foods and meat as the two highest contributors with a combined 63.3% of total GHGe of the food system. Consuming more than we need begins to threaten the environment when GHGe go up because of the demand for more food. Increased food production, particularly animal products, are a huge threat to environment as more livestock requires more growth of food and crops for them to eat which produces nitrous oxide and more ‘non-edible’ cuts of meat being discarded into landfill, contributing to the increase in methane gases (6). These GHG’s are threatening the earth by trapping heat within the atmosphere and slowly increasing the earth’s temperature, leading to climate change. Some of the other major concerns also include changes to precipitation, sea-level and vegetation patterns, in which the transport, packaging, production and waste of food products are the biggest contributors (7). In Australia, the average surface temperature has increased by 0.7°C over the past century with precipitation decreasing. A sense of urgency has been gathered as the dietary intake is expected to double by 2050, and it is suggested that a reduced quantity, increased quality (less discretionary food intake) diet can help to promote the sustainability of the food system.

Excess energy consumption on health

Despite the satisfied feeling of eating a large meal or multiple snacks, over the long-term it can cause energy imbalance, leading to many health problems (8). A clear relationship is demonstrated between energy consumption and health, where an increase of energy consumption to the point it is in excess also increases chronic health problems (9). Combining decreased physical activity and increased food consumption causes an energy imbalance, which is where weight gain begins to occur. Marketers are a major role to blame for this excess of energy as ‘low-fat’ and ‘light’ products begin to enter the food industry. With claims that these foods are better for consumers and are ‘weight loss answers’, people are beginning to have the mindset that eating more of these foods are good for their health when in fact overconsumption of low-fat foods is still overconsumption. The repercussion of being overweight and/or obese can harm almost every organ in the body (10). Obesity is a huge risk factor of cardiovascular disease which can occur from the build-up of fatty tissue in the arteries (11). If the arteries continue to be blocked it can ultimately lead to a stroke or heart attack where blood flow to the heart is blocked (11). Some other major risks of overconsumption of energy include type 2 diabetes, cancer, asthma, and irregular sleep. All these health risks ultimately lead to decreased life expectancy. In Australia cardiovascular disease affects 17% of the population and was estimated that it cost the health industry $8.2 billion in 2018 (12).

An Australian initiative to tackle excess food consumption

In Australia, the overconsumption of energy and food is a major health issue. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare states 1 in 4 Australian children aged 2 – 17 were overweight and 8.2% were obese in 2017-18(14). An initiative Australia has implemented is the reduction of unhealthy food advertisement during children’s television shows (13) which aims to reduce children’s desire for these discretionary foods. Research has shown that these advertisements model children’s preferences, requests, and food consumption levels (14). The Children’s Television Standards 2009 (CTS) applies to free-to-air television, however only CTS 32 addresses food; “prohibiting the misleading nutritional information of foods and drinks.” This initiative requires a lot of future work and could include making these policies mandatory to completely remove the exposure of unhealthy food advertisements to children to limit their consumption of excess energy of needs.

As more Australians consume larger meals and amounts of food, it is causing effects on their health and the environment. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weight gain and high blood pressure are some risks that consuming excess energy of needs is having on individuals' bodies. Similarly, the increased consumption of food is harming the environment as more food is wasted and going to landfill, greenhouse gas emissions are escalating, and climate and weather is changing.


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