The rise in obesity among adults and children in the world is becoming epidemic. We’ve all heard so much about the “obesity becoming epidemic” that it’s easy to think the story is being distorted. Overall, gaining a few pounds might not seem to warrant the declaration of a national emergency.
Obesity is a serious public health problem. Experts believe that as more obese children develop into obese adults, obesity-related diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes will become more widespread. It would result in a large number of sick people.
Why Is Obesity Becoming Epidemic?
We would have addressed obesity by now if it were an infectious epidemic sweeping the globe, impacting billions of people’s health, longevity, and productivity. Researchers must have developed vaccines and medications to prevent and treat this epidemic. However, the causes of obesity becoming epidemic are much more complex than a single bacteria or virus. And fixing the issue requires addressing various factors that lead to weight gain in a population.
Here is the cause of obesity becoming epidemic:
Increasing obesity is mostly caused by a chronic shift toward a positive energy balance. This means consuming more energy or calories than one expends per day. This leads to a gradual but steady increase in body weight. People sometimes believe that this is an individual issue. Many who are overweight simply need to change their habits to eat less and exercise more. If this fails, it must be due to personal failures, such as a loss of self-control or inspiration. Behavior patterns such as diet and exercise can impact a person’s risk of developing obesity. But, the environments in which we live also have a significant impact on our behavior. Also, this can make it even more difficult to maintain an energy balance.
The global obesity crisis is partially due to an environment that values unhealthy food consumption while discouraging physical exercise. Many of us live in what researchers and public health professionals refer to as “obesogenic environments.”
How our neighborhoods and lifestyles are structured affects our physical activity and food consumption, thus encouraging weight gain. Human physiology and metabolism evolved in an environment where obtaining enough survival food required significant energy expenditure in hunting or gathering. This is very different from today’s world, where many people work in sedentary occupations. Getting things done today requires fewer calories than past generations.
Our environment can also influence our food choices. We are surrounded by vending machines, fast food stores, coffee shops, and grocery stores. They provide quick and cheap access to calories. These foods are often heavily advertised, and they can be a welcome convenience. It is especially for people who are stretched thin from working long hours or multiple jobs. Compared to home-cooked food, they are more calorie-dense (and less nutrient-dense). Also, they are more heavily processed, with sugar, fat, and salt levels optimized to make us want to consume more. Furthermore, portion sizes at restaurants, especially fast-food chains, have increased over the decades. And people are eating out more and cooking less at home.
3. Poverty and Food Insecurity
Living in poverty usually means living in a more obesogenic climate. Consider that some of the United States’ poorest areas, which have some of the highest rates of obesity, are often unsafe or unpleasant places to walk, play, or exercise. They may have congested streets and dirty air, and a lack of sidewalks and playgrounds. An individual who lives in this sort of neighborhood would find it far more difficult to get enough physical exercise.
Furthermore, poor neighborhoods also lack a grocery store where people can buy fresh fruits and vegetables and basic ingredients for cooking at home. Such areas are referred to as “food deserts,” where healthy foods are simply not easily accessible.
What about genetics? Our genes can affect our susceptibility to obesity. But, researchers claim they cannot cause the obesity epidemic. Genes spread over many generations. And the obesity epidemic has arisen in the last 40 to 50 years—only a few generations. When our grandparents were kids, they were much less likely to become obese than our kids. This isn’t because their genes were different. But because they grew up in different environments.
However, a person’s genes may affect their susceptibility to being obese in this obesogenic environment. And obesity is more common in certain families. Certain genes can make you feel more hungry or slow your energy consumption. So, a person’s genetic make-up may make it more difficult to maintain energy balance in an obesogenic environment.
Solutions to the Obesity Epidemic
Given the various causes of obesity becoming epidemic, addressing this issue will require several solutions at different levels.
Interventions that promote healthier eating habits, especially among vulnerable populations due to food insecurity or poverty, can reduce obesity. In some cases, studies have shown that they have an impact. But, in others, it is too soon to tell. Following are some examples:
- Adopt and support better nutrition standards in childcare, colleges, hospitals, and workplaces.
- Limit the marketing of processed foods, especially those targeted at kids.
- Include incentives for supermarkets and farmers markets to establish outlets in underserved areas.
- Prioritize physical education and recess time as a priority in classrooms. Movement not only keeps kids safe but also helps them learn.
- Make neighborhood safety and accessibility for walking, riding, and playing.
- Encourage kids to walk or bike to school when it is safe to do so.
- Build family and community activities centered around physical activity, such as visits to the park, group hikes, and community walking and exercise classes.
- Promote walking meetings, movement breaks, and treadmill desks to encourage more movement during the workday.
- Find ways to move that are enjoyable for you and fit into your schedule. Yard work, dog walks, tag plays with your kids, and going out to dance all count!
What Should you Do?
The news about preventing and managing obesity on a national scale may be depressing. But, it’s important not to confuse a national health crisis with your own. Individuals attempt to lose weight and live healthier lives. While changing society can be difficult, changing yourself is much easier. For example, many people can effectively lose weight and keep it off. And even minor weight loss can significantly reduce the health risks.
So, rather than being distracted by depressing statistics or confused by conflicting theories on how to lose weight, it might be better to stick to the established advice of eating well and exercising regularly. Actually, doing what you can makes the difference.