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How to avoid obesity in an obesogenic environment

The first seminar in the Stockholm Public Health Lectures, held on May 18, is entitled The Obesogenic Enviroment. The seminar is about the worldwide increase of obesity and how our way of life and our environment risk making us obese.

Since many decades, we are experiencing a global rise in food availability and accessibility, lower demands on work and transport-related physical activity and increasing sedentariness, all factors tightly coupled to economic growth and development. This has made possible population growth and increasing life expectancy in most parts of the world. On the negative side is the emergence of the “obesogenic environment” with mass production and distribution of energy-dense foods, the engineering of physical activity out of daily life through changes in how transportation is or­ganized and increasing screen time in all age groups.

Consequently and not surprisingly, this has led to a worldwide rise in obesity.

Social diffrences in health behaviours

Overconsumption of dietary energy, unhealthy diets, and insufficient physical activity are among the main causes for the rise in the burden of chronic diseases in Sweden and globally. Studies in the 1990’s from the USA showed that differences in health behaviours between various residential areas could be linked to environmental factors such as the food environment, food prices, access to recreational activities, public open spaces and street safety. However, what has been described as geographic “food deserts” and “food swaps” has not been observed in European countries to the same extent. A consistent finding is that not all individuals become obese even in the most obesogenic environment. In Sweden and most high-income countries we see a strong social gradient in unhealthy diets and obesity prevalence to the disadvantage of groups with low education and income, largely independent of genetics and the environment. 

Person is more important than place

Although the prevalence of obesity in the population is still rising, “only” about half of the population is actually overweight or obese. A share of the population is resilient, defined as a ‘dynamic process encompassing positive adaptation within the context of significant adversity’ and researchers have concluded that ‘person is more important than place’. The interpretation of this is that the environment has an important role to play as an underlying driver of dietary and physical activity behaviour, but that educational level, knowledge and skills are stronger predictors.

More knowledge is needed 

Before deciding what to do to decrease obesity in the population, we need more knowledge on how individuals interact with their social and physical environment and which interventions are effective. In addition, decision-makers need to debate if they are willing to intervene and at what level. Understanding individual and environmental determinants of diet and physical activity is necessary in order to strike the right balance between individual and societal action in the fight against obesity and social inequalities in health.

Seminar on May 18

During the seminar "The Obesogenic Environment" on May 18 Dr Kevin Hall and Prof Ulf Ekelund will discuss the role of diet and physical activity and their determinants for obesity development and possibilities for prevention from the individual to the societal level.

Welcome to seminar om May 18!
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Author: Liselotte Schäfer Elinder