By Jorge Rojas, Humanitas Global
Our recent post, “A Closer Look: The Complexity of Overnutrition,” introduced a series of blog posts exploring the etiology of overnutrition and obesity. In this first post we will analyze the elements of the Physical/Built Environment described as factors that influence a person’s engagement in physical activities and food consumption behavior patterns.
Urbanization has grown at exponential rates in recent decades. For example, the world’s population was evenly split for the first time between urban and rural areas by 2008 – with more than 400 cities with over 1 million residents and 19 megacities with a population of over 10 million around the world. Moreover, it is expected that 70 percent of the world population will live in urban areas by 2050, with most of urban growth occurring in underdeveloped nations. Widespread urbanization often leads individuals in developing countries to begin following the pattern of more sedentary lives commonly observed in high-income countries with 60 to 85 percent of people in both developed and developing countries living sedentary lives. For example, an increasing number of people are replacing manual and physical labor with seated-office-style work. In the United States less than 20 percent of jobs involve physical activity, leading to a decline of 120 to 140 calories burned a day. Additionally, infrastructural developments, technological advancements and marginal increases in disposable income allow people to use improved sources of transportation rather than walking, extending sedentary behavior throughout day-to-day life. The latter has consequences in developed-nations too.
For example, one in five Britons in 2014 stopped taking walks that last longer than 20 minutes with the growth of online shopping and work-from-home opportunities eliminating the most common reasons for walks. People in Britain decreased their journeys as commuters by 18 percent, shopping visits by 24 percent and friend visits by 28 percent in 2014 compared to 1995.
As economies of developing countries improve, the risk of obesity increases throughout all “socio-economic classes as a result of improved access to food, decreased physical activity, and the consumption of ‘western’ diets”. While urbanization is frequently associated with increased availability and access to resources, many of the food options throughout cities are characterized by high-fat, low-nutritional density foods. Marketing of these foods is often a pillar of urban-life, with low-income residents as the greatest target audience.
Furthermore, as people move from rural to urban areas the exercise from harvesting their own fresh produce is traded in for purchasing ready-to-eat food, while the availability of ‘space’ and exercise-promoting environments for outdoor recreational activities decreases. Physical activity tends to be discouraged by increased population density, heavy traffic, poor air quality and a lack of safe public spaces and recreation facilities. Roger Thurow shares an example through the vivid experience of Jessica, a then-sixteen-year-old pregnant high school sophomore living on the South side of Chicago who was forced to abandon her daily walks and sole source of exercise when gun-violence began taking over her street in his recent book, The First 1,000 Days. He also recounts her struggles to eat well in a city where healthy, nutritious options are few and far between and much more expensive than a burger and fries, for example.
A lack of full-service grocery stores punctuates many low-income urban neighborhoods, forcing individuals to rely on convenience stores and the like for food. Small stores like these don’t have the capacity to support diverse and nutritious food choices, often offering junk food and little to no whole grains, and whole fruit and vegetable options.
‘Hedonic hunger’ is a term used to describe a strong desire for food “in the absence of any need for it”. Many experts believe that hedonic hunger is one of the main causes for rising obesity rates in high-income countries, “where scrumptious desserts and mouthwatering junk foods are cheap and plentiful”. There is greater access to such foods in urban environments because the physical environment induces people to eat more of these foods, and the more they eat them, the more they want them. Researchers have come to understand that certain foods, especially fats and sweets, “actually change brain chemistry in a way that drives people to overconsume”. This issue will be further described on the next post when we take a look at the biological/health environment; however, it serves as another example as to how the built environment of today’s world caters to overnutrition.
The complexity of overnutrition is often overshadowed by undernutrition. But today’s world and the impending challenges warrant an urgent need to educate people, encourage discussions and stress the role we all have in reducing the ills of malnutrition.
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