Two Reasons for Failure to Prevent the Rise of Obesity

The Rising Tide

For decades now, public health figures have been talking about an urgent need to prevent and reverse the rise of obesity. A number of U.S. presidents – notably George W. Bush and Barack Obama – have embraced this goal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a whole division devoted to this goal. It’s now in the third decade of its work on preventing obesity.

But despite all this attention and earnest hard work, obesity rates keep rising. Folks from CDC tell us they know exactly how to prevent it. Yet we have decades of rising obesity contributing to a rising burden of chronic diseases and, most recently, making us more vulnerable to COVID.

Why has this failure been so profound? We suggest that two fundamental reasons can explain it.

A failed paradigm: H.E.A.L.

Healthy Eating and Active Living is a seductive concept. Fitness togs have become an important signal to the world that we are virtuous with an active lifestyle. “Healthy eating” is something that most adults say they understand and want.

Yet extensive promotion of healthy eating and active living has made no dent in overall patterns of living. People are more inactive than ever, according to a new report from CDC this week. Righteous nutrition advocates have persuaded many people to avoid sugar by labeling it “toxic,” but people are consuming more ultra-processed foods. Consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables is as low as ever.

So despite the conviction that promoting healthy eating and active living will help, it’s not making a dent in overall patterns of behavior. Perhaps this is because our behaviors are shaped by our environment – more than our conscious choices.

The desire to eat healthy has created the opportunity for food marketers to sell us ever more food with health claims. Our brains are not wired to keep us active if we are not chasing food or running from a threat. So flashing the signal of an active life – for example, by wearing a Nike Swoosh – is more common than finding time for physical activity.

Ignoring the True Nature of Obesity

Environmental Obesity DriversThe other reason efforts to prevent the rise of obesity have failed is because they ignore the true nature of obesity. It is a highly heritable condition triggered by forces in the environment over which individuals have little control. We are getting more obesity because more of those forces confront biologically susceptible persons every day – whether they like it or not.

Food has become ever more appealing and available at our fingertips. The food supply prompts people who are wired for it to eat plenty when tasty food is at hand. Their bodies are protecting themselves from the possibility of the next famine – which never comes.

Prescription drugs and chemicals in the environment disrupt the endocrine system that regulates metabolism and fat storage. Stress and distress has a similar effect. And finally, our tech and physical environment has us sitting more and moving less, simply by default.

The reason for rising obesity is the environment that is prompting it. But all the efforts to prevent obesity’s rise have gone into changing behaviors that result from an obesogenic environment. Until we get serious about addressing the environmental factors that actually cause rising obesity, the harm it causes will surely continue to rise.

The Rising Tide, painting by Felix Vallotton / WikiArt

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January 29, 2022

3 Responses to “Two Reasons for Failure to Prevent the Rise of Obesity”

  1. January 29, 2022 at 8:04 am, Al Lewis said:

    Obesity is multifactorial and simplistic solutions embraced by the workplace wellness industry like “avoid added sugar” or “change your attitude towards food” have been epic fails.

    There must be some kind of X factor we don’t even know about yet. We saw a documentary on Woodstock last month. While this wasn’t supposed to be the takeaway, we couldn’t help but notice that not one person was obese and very few were overwieght, out of thousands in the crowd shots. And that’s with half of them smoking weed and getting the “munchies.”

  2. January 29, 2022 at 10:42 am, Allen Browne said:

    Great post.

    I suspect there are a number of “X” factors.

    What we can do now is educate that obesity is a disease, work to reduce stigma and bias, and get support for the tools we have to control the disease. Much to do.


  3. January 30, 2022 at 1:10 am, David Brown said:

    It may turn out that the x factor is the defects in the food supply that stem from feeding grains to livestock. “We now know that major changes have taken place in the food supply over the last 100 years, when food technology and modern agriculture led to enormous production of vegetable oils high in ω-6 fatty acids, and changed animal feeds from grass to grains, thus increasing the amount of ω-6 fatty acids at the level of LA (from oils) and arachidonic acid (AA) (from meat, eggs, dairy).

    For more information, Google – Obesity arachidonic acid.