Sunday, September 24th, 2017

Our Obesogenic World

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It appears the main issue impacting on health systems globally is the over-consumption of food. In the stone age and some centuries ago the ability to gain weight in times of plenty served us well during famines and wars. However, in our current times the over-consumption of food is aggravated by a sedentary lifestyle in a global environment now referred to as obesogenic, a term coined by Swinburn, Egger & Raza in 1999 to describe “the sum of influences that the surroundings, opportunities, or conditions of life have on promoting obesity in individuals or populations”.

Unfortunately the factors spawning the obesogenic environment are not only complex, they are here to stay and do not support our waist lines. They include:

· a readily available and expanded food supply

· technological and economic advancements which reduce energy expenditure such as cheap transport and outsourcing of tasks like gardening and cleaning

· food advertising

· a decline in physical activity

· increased sedentary behaviour such as TV viewing and computer games

· time constraints and dependence on convenience foods with short preparation times

· having easier access to food with the emergence of a supermarket society and the explosion of fast food outlets

· increased access to and consumption of alcohol

· a socio-cultural food focus as evidenced by the relationship between food and special occasions such as Easter and Christmas, as well the increasing numbers and variety of cooking shows on television and the emphasis we place on the positive relationship between food and socialising.

What makes economic and technological progress worse is the associated impact of living in societies saturated with a persuasive and invasive mass media supported by marketing genius that seduces even the most hard-nosed individual to take the path of instant gratification. We want what we want (and, don’t necessarily need) and we want it now, and are prepared to pay for it later, if at all.

In our obesogenic world, eating has become a leisure pursuit and a sedative. Food is no longer thought of as a substance for sustenance and survival, it has been bestowed a social, psychological and physiological significance that has become a major barrier to treating obesity.

Once we could say that weight loss was a simple maths equation of eating less and exercising more, but with the evolution of this more complex and technological society and the birthing of an obesogenic environment our consumption extends not just to food but to the media and marketing messages, our thoughts, beliefs and emotions, the substances we consume and even the chemicals and energies we are exposed to.

In acknowledgement of the obesogenic environment we now marinate in, some researchers refer to obesity as ‘a disorder of convenience’ and suggest that unless interventions are designed around the environmental issues impacting on individuals presenting for weight treatment, interventions are likely to be unsuccessful. However, the power of the mind in managing obesity should never be overlooked as effectively nothing is consumed by the body without the mind’s permission and it is the mind that determines if someone moves or exercises their body, and whether they comply with or give up on healthy eating plans. Therefore, unless we also address the vagaries of a mind that has maladapted to the obesogenic environment by using food for purposes such as managing emotions like stress and depression, to relieve boredom, or as a reward, then we are not addressing some of the major obstacles to weight management.

Weight loss is no longer simple. We live in an obesogenic environment that is here to stay. We must learn to adapt to the complex obesogenic world we live in if we wish to optimise our health and quality of life.

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