Rising Demand for Processed Foods, Animal Protein Will Worsen Global Obesity, Malnutrition by 2050


Nov 20, 2020


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The steady dietary shift from unprocessed, plant-based foods to processed foods and animal protein as people’s primary source of nutrition will worsen malnutrition and obesity and strain the environment, according to new research from Scientific Reports.

“If the observed nutrition transition continues, we will not achieve the United Nations goal of eradicating hunger worldwide,” Benjamin Bodirsky, lead author and researcher at Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), says in a statement. He adds, “At the same time, our future will be characterized by overweight and obesity of mind-blowing magnitude.”

By 2050, researchers estimate, more than 4 billion people could be overweight, 1.5 billion people obese, and, on the opposite side, 500 million people could be underweight. To put this in perspective — 45% of the world are likely to be overweight in 2050, up from 29% of the world in 2010.

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Beyond nutrition-based repercussions, the continued change in our diets will also impact the environment. Researchers predict that global food demand will increase by 50% before 2050, and for foods like meat and milk, demand will double from what it is currently. This will require more land use, above and beyond the one-third of the Earth currently used for growing crops and livestock grazing. “Using the same area of land, we could produce much more plant-based food for humans than animal-based food. To put it in a very simplistic way: If more people eat more meat, there’s less plant-based food for the others. Plus, we need more land for food production which can lead to forests being cut down,” said Alexander Popp, head of PIK’s Land Use Management Research Group.

In a first, the researchers created a long-term overview of nutritional transitions from 1965 to 2100 with an open-source model that includes population growth, aging, increasing height, growing body mass index, declining physical activity, and increasing food waste in its analysis. From this, researchers calculated predictions for the health effects of food scarcity and food waste, reaching their staggering results.

Researchers say the only way forward is to create an environment that encourages healthy eating habits. “Redistribution alone would not be sufficient, as actually both the poor and the rich eat poorly: There is a lack of knowledge about a healthy way of life and nutrition,” study co-author Prajal Pradhan said in a statement.

Sabine Gabrysch, co-author, and head of PIK’s Research Department on Climate Resilience, adds, “We urgently need political measures to create an environment that promotes healthy eating habits. This could include binding regulations that limit the marketing of unhealthy snacks and promote sustainable and healthy meals in schools, hospitals, and canteens. A stronger focus on nutrition education is also key, from early education in kindergarten to counseling by medical doctors and nurses. What we eat is of vital importance — both for our own health and that of our planet.”


Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is a culture writer at The Swaddle. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist focused on gender and cities. Find her on social media @aditimurti.


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