Ask the average person what causes obesity and they will tell you “overeating” or “too little exercise.”
Although both contribute to obesity, they don’t even begin to express all the factors that are causing humans to pack on the pounds.
In fact, public health experts have identified dozens of factors that contribute to fat gain in the developed world—a reality that is being called the “obesogenic environment.” Some of these factors we have control over, such as the amount of time we spend watching TV or whether we store food on the counter or in a cabinet, but for others our control is minimal or nonexistent.
For example, in the past 30 years, the price of fruit and vegetables rose much faster than the prices of all other consumer goods in the U.S. At the same time, the price of sugar, sweets, and carbonated drinks declined relative to other healthier foods. This shift is linked to how much we eat and our risk of obesity. One study that followed more than 5,000 young adults for 20 years found that lower prices on soda and pizza were associated with higher caloric intake and increased body fat.
In some cases, factors that we can’t control lead to the development of bad habits that we can control. For example, cars are necessary in suburban environments that are unwalkable, however, the use of motorized transportation has seeped into our culture to such a degree that even when we could walk or bike somewhere we don’t. For example, in Florida it’s common to see people “walking” their dogs while riding in a golf cart or driving the 150 yards to the community pool.
Poverty plays a major role in encouraging obesity as well. Low income urban areas are often called “food deserts” because fast food and convenience stores are abundant but supermarkets are absent, making it nearly impossible to access healthy food. Unfortunately, low-income urban areas also tend to lack parks, recreation centers, or safe spaces to walk, which reduces the opportunity for physical activity and compounds the likelihood that citizens will be overweight.
Technology is another major cause that has insidious effects that we don’t even realize. For example, social media and the rise of online shopping are making us more immobile. When we used to have to leave our houses to go shopping or meet friends, we now do all of that over a device while sitting on the couch.
People are also using smartphones to look stuff up whereas in the past they’d have to get up and find the information in a phone book, map, or other resource book. This might seem minor, but when you multiply it dozens of times throughout the day, it will have a significant impact on activity levels and energy expenditure.
Furthermore, the blue light emitted from phones alters hormones, particularly those that regulate hunger. Research shows that when people spend time on their phones during meals, appetite increases and they eat more calories. Blue light also alters secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin, which is implicated in the insomnia epidemic that many people are suffering.
Lack of sleep leads to a reduction in glycemic control and a decrease in the sensitivity of our cells to insulin, making us more likely to store calories as fat. Poor sleep also leads to a spike in cortisol, which triggers food intake of high carb foods.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how our environment is encouraging obesity. What follows is a list of actions you can take to conquer the obesogenic environment and live a lean and active life:
#1: Use Active Forms of Transportation
If you need to go somewhere that’s less than 1 mile away, walk or bike. If you have a bike, try using it for all your transportation that is less than 5 miles away.
#2: Make It a Habit To Cook At Home
The younger millennial generation is the first generation to spend more money dining out than they do for food prepared home, often choosing fast food, deli food, and pizza over healthier options. Food purchased from restaurants and fast food joints is less nutritious and up to 65 percent more energy dense than the average diet that is home cooked.
It takes a little extra time to cook at home, but you’ll be amazed at how much more energy you have once you are eating whole foods and not living off of processed foods.
#3: Avoid Stockpiling Food
The rise of big box stores like Costco lets people buy items in bulk and stockpile large amounts of food. One study found that when people were provided with large quantities of convenient-to-eat food in their homes for two weeks, they burned through their stockpiles 112 percent faster than when people had normal quantities of food in their homes.
#4: Choose Your Dining Companions Wisely
Humans rely on subtle social cues to determine how much we should eat. Studies show people will eat more when eating with an overweight dining companion, especially if they are of the same sex. If we are eating with someone who scarfs their food, we do too.
Even the number of other people we eat with affects our intake: One study found that consumption increases by 47 percent when you eat with two other friends but it increases by an incredible 96 percent at a dinner party of 7 others!
#5: Be Aware of High-Risk Fat Gain Periods
Women tend to gain fat when they experience hormonal changes, such as when a girl begins her period, after pregnancy or around menopause. For men, these periods are related to a less active lifestyle and occur after marriage, taking a sedentary job, or retirement.
#6: Monitor Body Composition With Skinfold Tests or Circumference Measurements
For most people, an increase in body fat sneaks up on them. One study found that when someone’s friends gained weight, that person was also likely to gain weight. Further, when researchers analyzed changes in perceptions about weight, they found that those who were overweight or obese had become more likely to consider their own weight “about right” instead of “overweight.”
#7: Stay Active Throughout The Day
A simple way of reducing sedentary time during the day is to make it a habit to walk briskly for ten minutes after every meal. A recent study found that when diabetics did this they had healthier blood sugar levels than if they walked for 30 minutes altogether.
#8: Hide Foods You Don’t Want To Eat
Proximity to food plays a primary role in how much of it we choose to eat. One office study found that secretaries who had Hershey’s kisses placed on their desks ate 5.6 more chocolates a day than when they had to stand up and walk 8 feet for them.
Keeping food out of sight may have an even more powerful effect. Studies have shown that people who keep high-calorie foods like cookies, soda, and sugary cereal on the counter instead of in the cupboard tend to have higher body fat. Of course, the best method is don’t even buy foods you don’t want to eat and if someone gives you food you don’t want, donate it, give it to people at work, or throw it away.
#9: Use Smaller Plates
A full plate sends the signal that you're eating a full meal, whereas a partially full plate looks like a skimpy meal, regardless of the actual quantity of food. Research shows that using smaller plates and glasses but filling them up is a simple way to eat smaller portions and thereby reduce calorie intake.
#10: Don’t Eat In Front of The TV or Any Screen
Distracted eating almost always leads to overeating. For example, when people eat while watching TV or a movie, they keep eating until the program ends, ignoring hunger cues and often far surpassing the amount of calories they would have eaten if they had been paying attention to their meal.
#11: Don’t Eat Out of Habit
Even if they are not physically hungry, simply thinking it is time to have a meal or a snack is enough to cause most people to eat. For example, many people are in the habit of eating in their cars. Instead, eat all your meals at the table without added distractions.
#12: Create A Speed Bump To Manage Portions
Put half of your meal off to the side to create a “speed bump.” When you hit the “bump,” ask yourself if you’re enjoying your food or if you’re actually full. Studies show that when people are offered multiple small packages they will eat less than if they are offered a large package of the same volume. Even though the physical effort required to open another package is minimal, the smaller packages provide discrete stopping points that allow you to reconsider whether you want to continue eating.
#13: Protect Your Kids From Food Marketing
Given that obesity, once developed, is difficult to treat, factors affecting food choices among kids are a major concern, especially since many junk and fast food companies are directly targeting children. A large-scale study found that the more food-related ads kids watch on TV, the more likely they are to be overweight.
#14: Avoid Food “Porn”
With the popularity of beautiful food on social media, we are exposed to tempting food on a regular basis. Recent evidence suggests that the visibility of a enticing food can enhance actual hunger by increasing the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward.
#15: Avoid Dieting & Food Obsession
Paradoxically, people who or are focused on specific aspects of food consumption appear to be particularly susceptible to environmental factors that spark overeating and undermine their attempts at restraint. Eating is difficult to monitor and a focus on food choices (such as choosing low-calorie, low-fat, “clean,” or gluten-free foods) causes people to focus more on what they are eating than on how much they eat.
In one study, when people chose to eat bread without butter in order to “save” calories, they ended up eating more bread over the course of the meal, thereby negating the calories they had “saved.”
Final Words: In some cases outsmarting the obesogenic environment just takes a little forethought and planning. In others, it takes courage and ingenuity. Either way your life depends on it! Hopefully, with these tips you’ll have the ammunition you need to develop habits that are good for your health and your waistline.