On health and sustainability

Say “sustainability,” and most people will think about the climate and the environment. How we should change our lives and consumption to leave a habitable planet for our children and grandchildren. The concept can easily be extended to issues of justice and distribution. For example, about a tiny part of the world’s population consuming such a large part of the earth’s resources while others live in poverty.

As I write this, it’s April 7th. World Health Day. An appropriate opportunity to reflect on another perspective on sustainability, namely sustainable health. It is a global problem that an increasing part of the health care resources is being used for things that we actually know how to avoid. Obesity and lifestyle-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease are increasing on all continents, including the poorest. The result is not just enormous suffering on an individual level. When the resources are limited, the development also means that other care is pushed aside. And the smaller the resources, the more noticeable the effects. As usual, the poor are the hardest hit.

All change must begin at the individual level. When we, ordinary people, take steps towards what is more sustainable, it gives real effect. It makes little difference if one single family changes its way of life. But when thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of people change their lifestyles for the more sustainable, it is possible to change entire societies. The ongoing pandemic is, for the most part, deplorable. But in a way, it inspires hope: it shows that people can change their behaviors in a way that makes a real difference. And when needed, it can go fast.

As a researcher, I can feel frustrated that knowledge is not enough. How hard can it be to stop stuffing yourself with empty calories and other unhealthy things when you know how you really should eat to stay healthy? Unfortunately, the answer is that it is challenging. Especially if the sustainable eating habits are to be sustainable over time and not just another diet or health week. Although the reward may be what most of us value most of all – good health.

Challenging, yes, but it should not be impossible.

The food industry is superb at capturing trends and understanding what people want. I wish that in parallel with developing delicious flavors and textures, reducing its climate footprint, and developing new, innovative packaging, it also became better at taking advantage of knowledge about what is good for health. And put it into its products. Because food that tastes good and fits in with people’s ways of living has a much better chance to end up in the stomach where it does good.

Or to put it simply: health must taste good. It is only then that it becomes sustainable for really many people on a scale that can change the world.

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