Drifting Away from Nature: The Cost of Convenience

By Golden, Kendra J. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Drifting Away from Nature: The Cost of Convenience


Golden, Kendra J., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

The alarming increase in the incidence of obesity over the last several decades has justifiably become fodder for copious research concerning human dietary and behavioral patterns, genetic predispositions, and economic policies that might explain the collective expansion of the human waistline. Ultimately, the goal in discerning the cause(s) of the world's overweight problem would be the ability to ameliorate the negative effects on health by implementing appropriate steps of intervention. However, and perhaps not surprisingly, this process has been easier said than done. First, the potential causes are multitudinous and have become so deeply entrenched in cultural and psychological patterns of day to day living and commerce that single solutions like "consumer education," though well intentioned and necessary, are likely to fail in isolation. Second, the data from current research are not always definitive and are sometimes contradictory. As contributing factors to the obesity epidemic, sedentary lifestyles, electronic media, processed foods, genetics, family structure, socioeconomic status and other elements have been investigated, all with thorough validity. To definitively explain the dramatic rise in the incidence of overweight and obesity, however, the true root of the problem must be distinguished from the many peripheral causes. In fact all of the factors mentioned above do have a common thread, and that thread is the cultivation of a culture that is increasingly and consistently distancing itself from the natural (that is, non-human) world. The rise in overweight/obesity coincidentally parallels this distancing in two significant, documented ways: 1) the lack of human contact with nature and natural environments, and 2) the over growing disconnect between our food and the natural environment.

One of the primary culprits receiving blame in the face of the obesity epidemic is sedentary lifestyle. Yet when attempting to pin down the usual suspects that are thought to contribute most to weight gain in this regard, the research isn't entirely clear. For example, some studies seem to indicate that television viewing is positively correlated with increased body mass index (BMI) in children. (1,2,3,4) Others seem to indicate that television per se has little if any effect on childhood BMI and that television viewing has actually decreased since the beginning of the obesity epidemic. (5,6) Physical activity figures prominently in the definition of a lifestyle that is not sedentary, yet when looking specifically at, say, children's participation in organized sports, data are discrepant. Studies range from noting that participation in organized sports has generally increased as children have gotten heavier (7) to stating that such participation is actually positively correlated with overweight in preschool-age girls (8) to reporting that organized sport participation is either negatively or not associated with overweight and obesity. (9,10) Clearly the specific details involved in the cause of overweight and obesity are difficult to pinpoint when so many factors are at play. For example, to what extent are sedentary activities other than watching television (such as playing video games or watching movies) responsible for inactivity in children? What role do physical activities other than organized sports (such as bike riding or playing hide-and-seek) have in keeping children active? As beneficial as the exercise is, a significant portion of the time in organized sports may be spent listening to instruction or standing while waiting for others to have their turns in games or practices. In an analysis of how children's use of time has changed in conjunction with the rise in childhood obesity, Sturm (11) notes that because of increased time spent away from home, children's free time, including unstructured playtime, has declined dramatically, while participation in organized sports has increased. …

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