JanUary: The environment is a cause of obesity and a potential cure

Dr Eric Robinson, from the Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, conducts research into the cognitive and social influences on appetitive behaviours. Dr Robinson was recently awarded a Medical Research Council (MRC) grant to research the effect food portion size has on energy intake:

“Most adults in the UK are now classed as being ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ and there is a considerable amount of evidence suggesting that this is represents a huge public health concern.

When obesity is discussed in the media a recurring theme is that people are responsible for their own lifestyle choices and that obesity is an individual’s problem. The problem with this idea is that it oversimplifies a very complex public health issue and diverts attention from a major cause of the obesity epidemic; the food environment.

People are no greedier or inherently different to how they were 50 years ago; human biology doesn’t change in that short a space of time. Whether we like the idea or not, people are strongly influenced by the environment they find themselves in and our food environment has dramatically changed in the last 50 years. For example, the availability of high calorie foods has increased and the portion sizes of food have also increased.  There are now dozens of published research studies confirming that the environment dictates how much we eat and that it is also very difficult for even the strongest minded individual not to over-eat when in a highly calorific food environment. This is a real problem because our current environment is just that.

Given that we know that most people in the UK are overweight or obese, that childhood obesity levels are worryingly high and once an average person gains weight it is extremely difficult for them to lose it in the long-term, passing off sole responsibility to the individual is wrong. It is also damaging because it diverts attention away from the main cause of the obesity epidemic; changes to the environment.

The environment in this context is not nature. Rather, it is the circumstances in which we live and eat.

Here are some examples:

Structural Environment

  • Physical environment
  • Available food choices

Social Environment

  • Media and advertising influences on individuals and their choices

Economic Environment

  • Availability of ‘energy dense’ unhealthy food options
  • Money spent making healthy choices available

Perhaps the best analogy for our current situation is that we are fish swimming against the tide; the tide represents the toxic food environment we find ourselves in. If we are to tackle the obesity epidemic then what we really need to do is to focus on changing the direction and strength of the tide; we need to renormalize the food environment and make healthier behaviours far easier.

This is something myself and other researchers at the University are currently addressing.”

For other articles regarding on-going research please click on the following links:

Hidden Sugars

Portion Sizes

Presenting evidence to the Health Select Committee

Man's waist being measured1


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