How the World Eats: Are We Getting Better?

Dinner party

As the Earth’s population of human beings heads towards eight billion, the impact of how we eat is becoming increasingly concerning. A new study from Kent University in England looked at food consumption patterns around the world and how they’ve changed over the past 50 years. Researchers also looked at what this means not just for human health, but the health of our planet.

The Rise of Obesity in the West

Drive-thru at Burger King
The drive-thru at Burger King. Photo: Stilfehler.

The diets in many Western countries, including Europe and North America, have undergone a big change since the 1960s. For one, we are in the middle of an obesity epidemic, fueled by large amounts of animal products and sugar.

Almost 4 in 10 adults in the U.S., or 38.6 percent, were considered obese in 2015 and 2016. This was a sharp increase over the 33.7 percent who were obese in 2007 and 2008, according to data by the JAMA Network.

Increasing Interest in Plantbased Eating

Plantbased eating

However, there’s also an undeniable rise in interest in and consumption of plantbased foods. According to IEG Policy, a 2014 study by the Friends of the Earth and the Heinrich Böll Foundation found that 4 percent of men in the U.S. and 7 percent of women, totaling 15 million people, identify as being vegetarian. And in the EU, between 2-10 percent of the population identify as being vegetarian, or roughly 10 and 50 million people.

This is compared to a 2009 study by The Vegetarian Resource Group that said only 3 percent of the U.S. population identify as being vegetarian.

While more research needs to be done on the number of people who identify as strict vegans, vegetarians, or even part-time vegans or vegetarians, what’s clear is that interest in plantbased eating has skyrocketed in the past 15 years, as you can see in data from Google Trends on the rise in searches for terms like “plantbased” and “vegan recipes.”

Google Searches for the Term “Plantbased” 2004 – Present

Google Searches for the Term “Plantbased”
Source: Google Trends.

Google Searches for the Term “Vegan Recipes” 2004 – Present

Google Searches for the Term “Vegan Recipes”
Source: Google Trends.

Meat Eating in Asia

Meanwhile, things are going in the opposite direction in Asia, especially in South Korea, China, and Taiwan. People in those countries are now consuming more animal products, including seafood, as well as sugar than ever before.

As the economies in these countries have grown and these societies have been influenced by Western culture, consumption of more expensive foods, including meat, is considered prestigious. As a result, obesity and diet-related illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes, have increased.

Diets of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia Stay the Course

Meanwhile, sub-Saharan Africa’s and South Asia’s diets have changed little over the past 50 years. The inhabitants of those regions are still dependent on starchy roots, such as cassavas and yams, and have extremely limited sources of protein. Africa has yet to experience an economic boom like that in parts of Asia, and diets are still considered nutritionally insufficient in many regions, causing high rates of malnutrition.

Globally, there are still gaping inequalities in access to healthy food. Today, 795 million people, or one in seven, do not get enough food to eat. Meanwhile, in the United States, there is an overabundance of food, yet 40 million people struggle with hunger.

Eating Beef Is the Cause of 65-70 Percent of Amazon Deforestation

Rainforest deforestation
Rainforest deforestation. Photo: Daniele Gidsicki

The consumption of beef from populations where the economy is strong, such as the U.S. and China, is contributing to the mass deforestation of the Amazon basin region, where rainforests are destroyed to make way for cattle grazing. According to the Rainforest Partnership, from 2000 to 2005, the beef industry was responsible for 65-70 percent of all deforestation in the Amazon.

It Takes 10x More Energy to Produce Meat

Meat consumption also uses an inordinate amount of energy: According to a study by Oxford University, It takes 24 kcal of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 kcal of animal protein, while it only takes 2.2 kcal of fossil fuels to produce the same amount of plantbased protein.

It’s clear that the way we eat impacts not only our health, but the health of the Earth’s natural systems, other species, and our fellow humans. We have work to do to ensure a fairer and more environmentally sustainable food production and distribution system. More people adopting a primarily plantbased diet is rare opportunity for a triple win that helps people, animals, and our planet.

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