Ever see an overweight environmentalist?

When I was in grad school, I made my way over to the environmental studies building a couple of times so that I could recruit potential participants. Each time I was there, I noticed something strange. Everyone there was in the “normal” category for body mass index. Moreover, all the participants I screened from that program were ineligible because they were already physically active. It made me wonder, is there something about being an environmentalist, or an environmentally friendly person, that makes one healthier?

As far as I can tell, the answer is YES. I should mention that this article is completely opinion based (and somewhat observational). I’m sure there are overweight enviro-friendly people; I’ve just never met one! So what is it about being green that makes one healthy? My guess is two things; active transportation and local fresh food.

Active transportation means that instead of sitting in a pollution spewing car, enviro-friendly people opt to walk or cycle to work or school. If the distance is too great, they are more likely to take public transit, which also requires a bit of walking (to and from the bus-stop). There are several studies to indicate that those who engage in active transportation are more likely to be in the normal body mass index category. There is also emerging evidence that these individuals are overall healthier.

Eating locally grown food is known to reduce one’s carbon footprint, but it may also mean committing to eating fewer processed foods. Eating produce, breads and meat from local farms means more home cooking and consumption of fewer foods with added sugar and preservatives. Thus by eating local foods, one might be committing to a healthier diet as well as a greener planet.

Surely there are other behaviours that contribute to this “phenomenon”. But as a health and exercise scientist, these two are the most obvious ones to me. What is also obvious from writing this article is that a commitment to a green lifestyle might also be an important step in committing to a HALF!

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Is your diabetes related to air pollution?

We’ve all heard that air pollution is bad for our health. But most people, myself included, assume that we are talking about respiratory health i.e. asthma or emphysema. The truth is, air pollution can be detrimental to cardiovascular and metabolic health too. In fact, a growing amount of research is finding that there may be an association between air pollution and type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is on the rise in western countries and is slowly becoming one of the greatest health concerns worldwide. It is primarily a result of poor lifestyle and is considered a preventable disease. However, there are some risk factors (such as genetics and age) that are not in our control. A recent study published in Diabetes Care (Andersen et al. 2012) and conducted by a group of scientists in Denmark found that air pollution may be another one of those factors. The authors used data from the Danish Diet, Cancer and Health database and from national health registries to determine whether traffic-related air pollution levels and the risk for diabetes in the elderly are related. They found a weak and positive association between diabetes and air pollution. This means that higher levels of air pollution were associated with a higher risk of diabetes, particularly among those who were non-smokers or who were physically active. While the association in this study was weak, there is other evidence to suggest that this association indeed exists. For example, a recent study found that traffic-related air pollution is associated with death from diabetes (Raaschou-Nielsen O et al. Diabetologia 2012), while others have found that those with diabetes have worse outcomes when exposed to higher levels of air pollution (O’Neill et al. Circulation 2005).

It seems then that air pollution may be another risk factor for type 2 diabetes. The question is, is it a risk factor we can control or a risk factor that is out of our control?  Well, I would like to think it is one we can control, not just at the individual level, but one that our governments can do a great deal about as well. If air pollution is leading to an increase in the prevalence of chronic conditions, then it is a public health issue. The government should opt for clean and green energy solutions and make green choices more affordable for the general population. This could lead to significant savings in health care expenditure as well as a significant improvement in our quality of life.

TAKE HOME MESSAGE: Type 2 diabetes is preventable and in some cases, reversible; particularly if you have a HALF. However, there are some factors that may be out of our our control and require action from our government. If you live in an area with high levels of air pollution, write to your local officials and let them know that your health is on the line! While we can all do our part at being green, we need significant changes in air pollution levels to ensure we can all maintain our HALF!

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