Nancy Lopez Olmedo Spotlights William Dietz
By: Nancy Lopez Olmedo, Travel Scholar and Speaker Ambassador at the 2019 Planetary Health Annual Meeting
I had the honor of talking to Dr. William Dietz during the 2019 Planetary Health Annual Meeting. Dr. Dietz received his MD from the University of Pennsylvania and his Ph.D. in Nutrition Biochemistry from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the Chair of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. Among his many achievements, Dr. Dietz has published over 200 scientific papers and edited five books.
Dr. Dietz was the co-chair of The Lancet Commission on Obesity’s report on the Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change, published this year (Swinburn et al. Lancet 2019; 393:791–846). Dr. Dietz presented the key points of this report during the plenary session titled “NCDs [non-communicable diseases] and Planetary Health: Common Challenges and Co-Beneficial Solutions” carried out on the last day of the meeting. The term “syndemic” is used because obesity, undernutrition, and climate change are pandemics that can have synergistic effects. According to the report, “they co-occur in time and place, interact with each other to produce complex sequelae, and share common underlying societal drivers.” Dr. Dietz highlighted in his presentation that global norms, supply/demand systems, commodity crops promotion, price supports, and the cattle industry are contributors of the global syndemic. To address these contributors, Dr. Dietz presented three main actions. The first one is to increase the consumption of plant-based foods and reduce beef consumption by increasing the demand for alternatives, redirecting subsidies, and implementing sustainability food labels. The second action is to reduce the consumption of ultra-processed foods by implementing food labels for health and sustainability, redirecting subsidies to reduce costs, and increasing the availability of unprocessed foods. Finally, the third recommended action is to reduce food waste by establishing consistent labeling. For instance, in the US, the packaged products have the legends of “best if used by” to indicate quality and “use by” as the date to discard, which can contribute to throwing away foods that are still safe. Also, it is recommended the reduction of portion sizes and the increase of institutional capacity for composting as measures to reduce waste.
It was very educative to hear first-hand about the global syndemic as one of the fundamentals to understand not only how climate change, obesity, and undernutrition can have synergistic effects, but also how climate change could affect the risk of diet-related diseases. The aforementioned could be addressed by analyzing the association between climate change and food consumption by processing level — that is, how increases in temperature and rainfalls could affect how much unprocessed and ultra-processed foods we eat. This is highly relevant since the potential for a negative loop between food systems and climate change is plausible. Two days previous to Dr. Dietz’s presentation, I had the opportunity to talk to him about my proposal of studying the linkage between climate change and food consumption in Mexican cities. He was not only interested in learning more about the study, but also he gave me insightful ideas to improve my research (indeed, he kindly shared useful references). Moreover, he persuaded me to go beyond understanding the determinants or effects of climate change by also promoting evidence-based advocacy. That is, by focusing more on “how to do” instead of “what to do.”
I would just like to add that, during the talk with Dr. Dietz, I was fortunate to meet with Dr. Aline Martins de Carvalho, also travel scholar and speaker ambassador, who is developing metrics to evaluate the sustainability of diets in Brazil. I had the opportunity to talk to her the following days, and now we are, together with other wonderful researchers we met, in a network to share and advance in the knowledge of climate change and diet.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Planetary Health Alliance or its members.