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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

10 ways our environment is making us fatter

Updated: Dec 7, 2022

a hand pushing the button on a vending machine to get a snack

If you ask people on the street why people are getting fatter, you will get as many answers as the number of people you ask.

People with obesity are often judged as lacking willpower or for being lazy.

There is no question personal responsibility plays a role in weight management. But, we might be much more successful practicing healthy behaviors if we weren’t surrounded by an “obesogenic” environment.

What is “obesogenic”?

Obesogenic refers to factors in our environment that accelerate weight gain and make weight management difficult. The term obesogenic was coined by Dr. Boyd Swinburn, professor of population health at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. This spring I will be speaking about “overcoming our obesogenic environment” for the Pennsylvania Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Here are 10 ways our environment is making us fatter: Like #1 pictured above and #8 pictured below:

  1. Food is never far away and it’s ready to eat. Convenience stores, vending machines, ready-to-eat everything. Hungry? Grab a snack. They’re everywhere.

  2. “Upselling” prompts us to take more. “Would you like _____ with that?” “Would you like the quart size drink and bucket of popcorn?” Sure.

  3. All-you-can-eat buffets prompt us to get more for our money. Who wants to waste money? No one.

  4. Portion distortion is the increase in “normal” portion sizes at restaurants, in packaged foods, and as a result, what we serve ourselves at home. Often twice as much, or more.

  5. Today’s larger plates and glasses hold 50% more food than yesterday’s dishes. We need larger serving ware to hold those larger portions. Less looks skimpy. Why? The “Delboeuf Illusion” - the optical illusion of relative size perception that makes the same size object look smaller on a larger plate.

  6. Food marketing is pervasive and persuasive. Prompting us to purchase “hedonic foods.” We eat for pleasure in the absence of hunger. Not just occasionally. Every. Single. Day.

  7. Today’s jobs are primarily sedentary, sitting at a computer. Like me, right now.

  8. Today’s recreation is primarily sedentary, watching a screen. Like you, right now.

  1. Technology eliminates our need to move to do many of the activities of daily living. Stairs are good exercise, but not if they become escalators. We change channels, turn off lights, and lift garage doors by pushing a finger not lifting a muscle.

  2. Communities are designed for driving not walking. We make even short trips behind the wheel rather than by foot.

Any one of these environmental factors could result in an energy imbalance of hundreds or thousands of extra calories at one time, and certainly over days, weeks, and years. Adding up to pounds gained rather than pounds maintained. “Upselling” alone has been estimated to add more than 17,000 extra calories over the course of a year, according to a study in the UK by the Royal Society for Public Health.

Overcoming these influences begins with awareness of their existence, followed by responding differently – like when we split a large portion with a dining companion, or by making modifications in our personal and public environments: We can buy smaller dinner plates for our homes and petition for more walking trails in our communities. We can become environmentalists of a new breed – ones who fight to overcome an obesogenic environment. An obesogenic environment makes healthy lifestyles hard - modifying environments can make staying healthy easier.

The current “obesity epidemic” is the result of many factors. Obesity is complex. We must avoid oversimplifying potential “answers.” No one culprit is at fault. Environmental change is one strategy that shows promise in turning the tide. Begin by identifying factors in your environment that promote overeating or discourage physical activity. Respond in new ways that overcome their obesogenic influence. Where possible, modify your environment to be health promoting instead of obesogenic.

“The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”

Chinese Proverb

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