Academic journal article The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health

Obesogenic Environments: Exploring the Built and Food Environments

Academic journal article The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health

Obesogenic Environments: Exploring the Built and Food Environments

Article excerpt

Abstract

Obesity is a significant health and social problem which has reached pandemic levels. The obesogenicity of an environment has been defined as 'the sum of influences that the surroundings, opportunities, or conditions of life have on promoting obesity in individuals or populations'.1 Prevention and treatment of obesity has focused on pharmacological, educational and behavioural interventions, with limited overall success. A novel and a longer-term approach would be to investigate the environments that promote high energy intake and sedentary behaviour; this has not yet been fully understood. The obesity epidemic has attracted attention at all levels, from general media interest to policy and practice from health and other professions including urban designers and planners. Shaping the environment to better support healthful decisions has the potential to be a key aspect of a successful obesity prevention intervention. Thus in order to develop effective environmental interventions, in relation to obesity, we need to understand how individuals, and different groups of individuals, interact with their environments in terms of physical activity and food intake.

Key words

Environment; obesity; planning; young people

INTRODUCTION

Obesity is a significant health and social problem, which has reached pandemic levels. While reported energy intakes from food, in England, have been decreasing over 30 years, the prevalence of obesity has tripled over 20 years and continues to increase at an alarming rate.2 The health and social costs of obesity are high; obesity accounts for approximately 30,000 premature deaths and the total estimated cost of obesity is £3.3-3.7 billion per year.3 While it is accepted obesity is influenced by genetic and behavioural factors, the environmental influences have yet to be fully explored and understood.4 Obesity prevention and treatment has focused on pharmacological, educational and behavioural interventions, with limited overall success.3 A novel and longer-term approach would be to investigate the environments that promote high energy intake and sedentary behaviour; this has not yet been fully understood. If the influences of these environments were understood, approaches that modify the environment would have the potential to assist in the prevention of this multifactorial disease. It is well established that dietary intake and physical activity can influence the advancement and prognosis of chronic disease.5 In relation to the current obesity epidemic, diet and physical activity cannot be examined in isolation. To understand 'why we eat what we eat' requires an understanding of time, space, social relationships, culture and nature.6 The obesogenicity of an environment has been defined by Swinburn et al.' as 'the sum of influences that the surroundings, opportunities, or conditions of life have on promoting obesity in individuals or populations." Obesogenic environments (obesity-promoting) are perceived to be a driving force behind the escalating obesity epidemic.7 Human environments are enormously complex8 and therefore warrant a multidisciplinary approach to investigate this concept of obesogenic environments. Overweight and obesity are not caused by a single factor, and evidence indicates that the environment has a significant effect on diet, physical activity and obesity.9

This article will specifically explore the built environment and the food environment and their relationship with obesity.

ENVIRONMENTS

The effects the environment has on health can take a number of forms, from physiological and emotional to social, spiritual and intellectual wellbeing. The environment can be related to health through: (1) its physical design (the built environment); (2) the socio-cultural rules that govern these environments; and (3) the socio-economic status of these environments. For example, high levels of environmental stresses and lack of social cohesion in lower socio-economic neighbourhoods have been found to contribute towards poorer health outcomes. …

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