An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Fall 2015

Food, Health & the Environment: A Global Grand Challenge & Some Solutions

Jaquelyn L. Jahn, Meir J. Stampfer, and Walter C. Willett

The dual burden of obesity and undernutrition is a significant public health challenge worldwide, especially in the context of a changing climate. This essay presents the most recent nutritional evidence for the optimal diet for long-term health, and offers some commentary on how production of these foods affects the environment. Current dietary research supports a diet rich in fruits and vegetables; nuts, legumes, fish, and some poultry as protein sources; unsaturated fats replacing saturated fats; whole grains replacing refined grain products; dairy foods in low to modest amounts; and minimal amounts of red meat and added sugar. This healthy dietary pattern also supports sustainable agriculture and environmental preservation.

JAQUELYN L. JAHN is pursuing her Master’s in Public Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, with dual focuses on obesity prevention and social epidemiology. Her research has been published in journals such as International Journal of Cancer, Circulation, Cancer Research, and Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

MEIR J. STAMPFER is Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Professor of Medicine at the Harvard Medical School. He is also Associate Director of the Channing Division of Network Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Principal Investigator of the Nurses’ Health Study. He has published over 1,000 scientific papers and is among the five most highly cited researchers in clinical medicine.

WALTER C. WILLETT is the Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition and Chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He is also Professor of Medicine at the Harvard Medical School. He is the author of Nutritional Epidemiology (3rd ed., 2012), Eat, Drink, and be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Eating Healthy (with Patrick J. Skerrett, 2005), and The Fertility Diet (with Jorge E. Chavarro and Patrick J. Skerrett, 2008).

Public health efforts worldwide have traditionally focused on alleviating undernutrition–inadequate calories and protein for optimal growth and development–but obesity has simultaneously risen as a major contributor to morbidity and mortality worldwide. Urbanization and globalization have enabled the widespread availability of foods of low nutritional quality and, compounded by declining physical activity, these result in positive energy balance and weight gain. For example, in Mexico, the prevalence of obesity has been steadily rising since the 1980s, and about 70 percent of the Mexican population is now overweight or obese.1 Concurrently, undernutrition remains a significant challenge in many low- and middle-income countries, where the double burden of overnutrition and undernutrition is particularly severe among low-socioeconomic strata in rural areas. Total caloric intake is often adequate, but the diet quality is declining: consumption of saturated and trans fats, sugar, and refined wheat or other grains have increased, while people are eating fewer legumes and whole-grain cereals. Despite the dramatic increase in knowledge regarding the impact of diet on human health over the past several decades, the prevalence of diabetes and other noncommunicable diseases is increasing worldwide, in .  .  .


  • 1Xochitl Ponce, Sonia Rodríguez-Ramírez, Verónica Mundo-Rosas, Teresa Shamah, Simón Barquera, and Teresa González de Cossio, “Dietary Quality Indices Vary with Sociodemographic Variables and Anthropometric Status among Mexican Adults: A Cross-Sectional Study. Results from the 2006 National Health and Nutrition Survey,” Public Health Nutrition 17 (8) (2014): 1717–1728, doi:10.1017/S1368980013002462.
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