There continues to be a belief within our popular culture that obesity is the simple result of eating too much and exercising too little (if at all). Sadly, many people still point the finger at obese folks for their circumstances without realizing the true facts about obesity. From experiencing verbal abuse from strangers on the street and being chronically judged to internalizing these negative messages in the form of shame, self-hate, and disgust, people who are obese suffer from a myriad of physical and mental health related problems. Name-calling and judgement haven’t turned this “epidemic” of obesity around, so what could?
Perhaps understanding all the factors that are related to obesity is a good start…
1. The Obesogenic Environment
The term “obesogenic environment” relates to the influences of one’s environment over physical activity and eating behavior. For example, if we live in an area without sidewalks or safe walking routes coupled with a lack of accessibility to fresh fruits and vegetables, the chances are good our obesity rates will be higher than a neighborhood with safe walking routes and healthy food options available.
This is not to say that environment will be the sole reason for obesity, but it is one factor to consider when examining the cause of obesity. People who live in areas that foster fast food and driving rather than walking are going to have a greater challenge making those behavior changes that may lead to weight loss.
2. The Culture of Beauty
It should come as no surprise that our culture has played a significant role in the obesity “epidemic” over the years. The belief that to be beautiful one must be thin and fit or athletic and muscular has influenced the mental and physical health of men and women for years. Unfortunately, the ideal of beauty is unattainable by the majority of North Americans yet the struggle to attain perfection continues.
Years of unhealthy and restrictive diets have contributed to much of our weight gain over time. Yet, the cycle of weight loss and weight gain continues with the hope that the next diet or pill will be the last. Our culture’s belief of beauty has motivated self-starvation, exercise abuse, and other eating disorders. It really only serves those who make money off of it.
3. Mental Health
Another factor that has a big influence on obesity is mental illness. From depression and anxiety to chronic stress and past trauma, obesity may be attributable by one’s mental health. Weight gain can be the result of emotional eating as a way to cope or a result of medications taken to increase mental health (such as anti-depressants).
The link is so strong between obesity and mental health, that The Canadian Obesity Network has suggested that people with obesity issues should be screened for mental illness before embarking on a weight loss program.
Although obesity research has suggested that genetics can be the cause of obesity due to disorders such as Prader-Willi Syndrome (a genetic disorder that causes life-threatening obesity in children) genetics does not predict obesity overtime. The combination of other factors in partnership with a genetic predisposition may serve as a better predictor (or cause) to obesity issues.
The Research Chair in Obesity at the Université Laval suggest the identification of such genes may be helpful to identify at-risk individuals while influencing more care and attention towards healthy nutrition and physical activity (along with the many other factors that can contribute to obesity).
5. Social Networks
It is a fact that having friends and family support the changes we have made to our health helps us keep it up longer than those that don’t. The American Psychological Association supports this, and suggests that those who lose weight with a positive social support network keep it off longer than those who tried to keep it off on their own.
In addition, social influences play a role in our health behaviors including eating, exercise, weight loss or gain. The old saying that suggests we are who we hang out with may have a point. If one wishes to make healthy changes in eating, exercise, and other behaviors the first step may be separating from the negative social influences.
6. Food Addiction
As a way to cope with uncomfortable feelings and situations in life, many people turn to alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling and the like to self-soothe. Food, for many, is no different. Whether we are coping with loneliness, depression, or any other mental health challenge, we can use food as a way to comfort us. The result is weight gain and the potential for obesity over time.
Research now understands the influence certain foods have on the brain. In fact, brain studies have shown that, after ingesting sugar, the same pleasure centers in the brain light up as they would after taking cocaine or heroin. Just as drugs are addictive and hard to kick, so is getting off the sugar. The more one eats, the more one wants and, just like drugs and alcohol, we need more to get the same high we did in the beginning. In conclusion, obesity may be the result of the addiction to our food.
7. Lack of Awareness
With all the various messages about what to eat, how to exercise, and ways to lose fat, it is no wonder most of us are left scratching our heads in confusion. A mother may believe choosing orange juice over pop is the healthier option only to learn juice and pop are both loaded with sugar. Even when we decided to look at the nutrition labels, we are still dumbfounded with serving sizes, measurements, and ingredients we can’t pronounce.
Over the last few decades it was believed that a diet low in fat and high in refined carbohydrates was healthy. It wasn’t until a few years ago, this belief was challenged. Unfortunately, it looks like our love affair with carbs has had an influence on our waistlines.
8. Family Income
When, in many cases, soda is less expensive than water it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the link between income and obesity. The Centers for Disease Control reported that those with lower levels of income will show a higher rate in obesity. Dr. Jim Levine, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic, has examined the relationship between poverty and obesity and notes a lack of access to affordable, healthy food along with environments that promote a sedentary lifestyle has contributed to obesity rates.
Sadly, with the gap increasing between the rich and the poor, and the cheap foods high in salt, sugar, and fat while the healthy, fresh options are inaccessible, we may soon see an increase in overweight and obesity (and the related diseases that relate) in North America.
9. Environmental Chemicals
One of the latest findings in obesity research has examined the influences of chemicals within our environment on obesity and overall health. Bruce Blumberg, an associate professor of developmental and cell biology at the University of California, Irvine explains that exposure to hormone-altering chemicals prenatally can play around with an animal’s metabolism leading to increased weight gain overtime. Dr. Blumberg went on to cited two chemicals that may alter hormones including Bisphenol A (used in plastics) and Tributyltin (used in the green paint on ships).
In addition to altering the metabolism, researchers are finding that the size and number of fat cells in animals exposed to chemicals continue to grow overtime. Although the studies into the effects of environmental chemicals on obesity rates are just beginning, it is important to note the current findings of certain chemicals.
10. Fat Shame
Although we have already addressed the psychology that influences obesity, the internalization of society’s fat phobia is creating the most harm. The prejudice against fat people in our culture is having detrimental effects on all aspects of health within the obese population. From media messages to “Dear Fat People” letters showcased on the internet, the obese person is met with ridicule, judgement, hate, disgust, and pity every day of their life.
The stigma and fear of fat is witnessed in how we talk about food, exercise, and our bodies. It permeates our children’s schools and preys upon our self-esteem. It is the cause of eating and exercise disorders and can lead to bullying resulting in self-harm or suicide. We need a serious paradigm shift if we are going to see positive changes to health and obesity statistics. Judgement, blaming, and name-calling are not working.