Sunday, June 26, 2011

How our environment makes us fat

You could walk down the aisle of any place where people gather, like a mall or a Wal-Mart, and hear some remark pertaining to obesity. In fact, weight bias is a popular topic among health researchers. As someone who was obsessed with social psychology as an undergrad, I was not surprised to find the fundamental attribution error (FAE) at the core of this bias. The theory is simply that people often attribute personality faults to other individuals, but they rely on situational or environmental factors to explain their own behavior. In the case of obesity, many people often think of obese people as lazy and not very smart. Many people, especially in the US, think it comes down to personal responsibility.  However, if they themselves were obese they might blame too many hours at the office or too many family obligations for not having time to eat right and exercise, stacking the odds against weight loss.

Just to be clear, humans do make choices, but as the saying goes “genetics loads the gun and the environment pulls the trigger.” People usually make the easy choice. It is easy to blame obese people for their girth, especially in lieu of delving into the complexity of the obesity problem. So we shall dig a little deeper.  

The origin of homo sapiens could be 30,000 years ago or longer. For most of that time we lived in smaller groups, getting our food from hunting and gathering. The agricultural revolution didn’t happen for another 20,000 years. Thus most of our adaptations would have come about for the hunter-gatherer environment. Conservation of energy would have been key to surviving under those conditions. That means we would only use our precious energy if a lion were stalking us or if we were starving. If not, we would sit around and save resources until that lion attacked or food sources dwindled. Humans rarely had to worry about too much food; usually we had too little. Therefore, humans haven’t evolved to become sated. We have no upper limit to our food intake. Have you ever watched an episode of Man vs. Food? Nature was our fitness coach and our dietary regulator.

Add to this a market-driven food system with a laissez-faire governmental approach and you have a recipe for disaster. This is the most supported explanation for the rampant obesity problem facing the world today. How could 60% of human beings on this planet become lazy and fat in just a few generations? And most importantly, when our food system was based on natural cycles the prevalence of obesity was far less. With regards to evolution, our bodies have not had time to adapt to this new and seemingly endless supply of food.

Health researchers use the term “obesigenic environments” to describe environments that foster obesity. These are places that have a high density of fast food outlets, with little access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and with a scarcity of parks and green spaces. So the opportunities for eating healthier and for getting physical activity are decreased. Over the past few centuries, humans have created more and more comfortable environments for themselves, further disconnecting from nature’s regulatory features. Therefore, “fat and lazy” is not truly an accurate description of people who are obese. It gives short shrift to the massive changes humans have brought about during recent history.

If you are obese or know someone who is it might be more productive to take these factors into consideration before making a flippant remark or even blaming oneself for being overweight. By taking this perspective, more opportunities open up to intervene. Our work environments, our food shopping environments, and our neighborhoods all have contributed to our obesity problem, and they are the areas that quite possibly present some solutions. Interventions to built environments have been shown to help people increase their physical activity. By increasing access to fruits and vegetables people will make healthier choices. So instead of making the fundamental attribution error, maybe we should work towards identifying places to change the immediate environment so the easy choice can be the healthy choice.