Wrangling a Hot Mess That Magnifies Obesity

Complex SimpleIn case you hadn’t noticed, it’s a hot mess out there. And the mess is messing with our bodies and our food systems – bringing global problems with obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Bill Dietz and Sydney Pryor tell us we need to get comfortable with the concept of syndemics. But for now, let’s just stick with the idea of complex, adaptive systems interacting to hand us some wicked problems to solve.

The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and food systems are leaving us a growing mess of problems with food insecurity and obesity.

The Syndemic Papers

In a pair of new papers, Dietz and Pryor lean heavily on the language of syndemics to link up COVID-19, obesity, food insecurity, and climate change. They tell us:

“Strengthening local and regional food systems provides a common solution to both the new Syndemic of COVID-19, Obesity, and Food Insecurity and the Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change by promoting sustainable food production and consumption, and prioritizing the food supply chain workforce.”

In a sense they are offering up a well-worn framework for a new set of problems. Think global, but act local. People are ready to engage on climate change, they write. So the time is right to build upon that readiness.

Ancient Food Systems

It’s worth remembering that we’ve been tinkering with food systems for millenia. Outright starvation has indeed declined because of it. In 2000, about 15 percent of people on this planet were undernourished. By 2019, that number had dropped below nine percent. But now the problem of global food systems has morphed into one of insecurity. And food insecurity seems to feed obesity. If a person doesn’t know whether the food supply will be adequate tomorrow, the response is to eat more today.

It’s not rational. Rather, this response comes from our biological blueprint for survival.

Also instinctive is our response to the problems that come together in the syndemics that Pryor and Dietz describe. For decades now, efforts on obesity have focused upon individual behaviors – nudging people to eat less and move more. Nutrition policy has focused on individual bad foods. Climate policy advocates call out the bad actors.

Systems Built of, by, and for People

There’s nothing wrong with trying to figure out where the problems lie. But at some point, solving complex systems problems requires building systems to work better. That means working with people who might have been dismissed as bad actors. Katherine Milligan, Juanita Zerda, and John Kania explain:

“Sometimes we lose sight of a simple truth about systems: They are made up of people. Despite all of the frameworks and tools at our disposal and all of our learning as a field of practice, purely technical, rational approaches to systems change will not make much of a dent in shifting power or altering our most deeply held beliefs.”

Obesity is a hot mess that keeps getting messier because it’s tough to let go of fundamentally flawed ideas about it. It is a biological problem prompted by systems that undermine human health – systems of food, physical environments, chemicals, and social stressors. Not a simple problem of bad behavior.

So it’s time to stop beating up on individuals and start building better systems.

Click here and here for the new papers by Pryor and Dietz. For more on a systems approach to solving the complex problems we face, click here and here.

Complex Simple, painting by Wassily Kandinsky / WikiArt

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February 15, 2022