By Jorge Rojas, Humanitas Global
Our recent post, “Can Our Genes Explain Overnutrition?” noted that we cannot blame overweight and obesity on a sole factor. Instead, it is a series of variables such as human biology, behaviors and our surrounding environment that together yield overnutrition. This series on the etiology of overnutrition has already focused on the influence physical and biological environments play on overweight and obesity. In this next post we will evaluate different ways in which our social culture—the set of beliefs, customs, practices and behaviors within a population—induces individuals to gain weight.
“You are too skinny, you have to eat more”, I recall my grandmother saying when I visited her as a kid. It was a common belief held by grandmothers and mothers alike in Bolivia, my home country, and throughout Latin America that a fat child was a healthy child. This is just one example of how traditional beliefs passed on generation to generation within cultures can influence behaviors and induce overnutrition. Information on food and nutrition is more accessible now than ever, preventing such beliefs from becoming widespread though. As evidence, some studies have found that education has an inverse relationship with obesity; people with more education are less likely to be ‘overnurtured’ into overweight or obesity.
Education has been related to greater access and ability to interpret health information, greater awareness of healthy lifestyle choices and improved self-control and consistency of preferences over time. Consequently, it is safe to assume that education promotes behaviors that help prevent overweight and obesity. A 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health in the United States found that children of parents with less than 12 years of education had an obesity rate of 20.9 percentage points higher than those whose parents have a college degree. While education levels are not absolute determinant factors, it has been found that “the higher the individual’s education relative to his or her peers, the lower the probability of the individual being obese”.
However, access to education is also a challenge within the sociocultural environment. For starters, socio-economic issues such as the lack of economic resources, families choosing to send their children to work rather than to school and gender inequities limit the access of individuals around the globe to formal education. Furthermore, even if people are educated they may still struggle to distinguish between correct or false information. For example, Dr. Oz—whose TV show reached approximately 2.9 million viewers per day in 2014—was found in a study to showcase 479 medical recommendations in 40 selected episodes of which evidence only supported 46% of these recommendations, contradicted 15% and was unavailable for 39%. Being viewed as an authority figure, this individual was actually able to spread false information, which happens all too often.
Our sociocultural environment also tempts us to eat too much and to live unhealthy lives. The media encourages us to eat ‘junk food’ such as cheesy, double patty hamburgers just like the healthy, fit celebrities and supermodels in ads; retail companies pitch shoes that can tone muscles, lead to weight loss and improve cardiovascular health without changing your workout routine; some junk foods are packaged to be marketed as ‘healthy’ when in reality they aren’t (think granola, a healthy-sounding breakfast staple that is rich in sugar and can contain as much as 600 calories in just one cup); sedentary lifestyles have become the norm (binge-watching television has become an acceptable hobby among all ages); and exercise has become a multi-million dollar industry where Pilates, Bikram Yoga, Pole Dancing and other ‘boutique’-style exercises are competing for our attention and generally hoping to profit from obesity and chronic disease rather than fighting them, among other factors.
Americans, Japanese, Italians and Polish individuals spent an average of over 4 hours watching TV per day in 2014—most likely while snacking on sodium and fat rich foods and drinking sugary drinks. People also sleep less due to overburdened work schedules or even to stay up late binge watching their favorite show on Netflix, leading to less energy for exercise, eating more unhealthy types of foods and even altering the hormones that control appetite. Whenever we visit a restaurant we are encouraged to eat hefty portions, served up as the new normal for portion sizes–with some restaurants going as far as to offer bottomless bread sticks, endless pasta and ‘all-you-can-eat’ shrimp among other foods to encourage people to overindulge. Moreover, the food industry has rolled-out marketing campaigns to target children with ‘fun’ junk foods, including offering specific products for children such as the Happy Meal or King Jr Meals where a child gets a toy with his or her food. In 2012 the food industry spent $4.6 billion to advertise fast food whereas 2.5% of that, a mere $116 million, was spent to advertise fruits and vegetables. Finally, globalization has introduced fast food chains all over the world, which has led many individuals in developing countries to spend those extra dollars on fast food as they are seen as a symbol of status. It has also allowed for food industries to target and entrap vulnerable populations in developing countries where public health officials are only recently acting on health problems related to overweight and obesity.
We now live in a toxic environment for healthy eating habits and physical activity, where children may prefer video games and television over playing sports outside. Changing behavior patterns is not simply done by placing higher tax rates on sugar drinks, or by telling people to exercise more. Behaviors that are ingrained in people’s cultures and social norms need to be modified in order to promote healthier life styles, an effort that requires multi-sectoral support. The government, private sector and civil society all need to join forces to promote health within our communities and get people excited about eating healthy and engaging in physical activity. Children should not be raised to believe a diet of junk food and fast food will support their ambitions to be a professional athlete or a Nobel Prize winning physicist. No one should be peer pressured by their sociocultural environment to become overweight or obese.
Stay tuned for our next post in this overnutrition series, where we will observe the factors that influence food quality and the impact of food prices on consumption. We will take a look at how our economic environment has led eating practices towards “low-cost, high-calorie but nutrient-poor foods”.