Can Environmental Factors Cause Obesity?


Obesity is a complex interaction between food, physical and social environments. Obesity is the result of energy imbalance, where the energy consumed is greater than the energy expended. Our built environment, food environment and social environment plays a role in encouraging obesity.1

The 2007 UK government Foresight report “Tackling obesities: Future choices” describes the importance of modifying environmental factors to manage the obesity epidemic, and the need to promote healthy behaviors in weight management.

Modifying our environments to promote more physical activity, reduce sedentary lifestyles and cut down on easy access to energy rich foods is important for managing the obesity epidemic.2

Environmental And Lifestyle Influences On Obesity

1. Food Environment

We live in an age of fast cooking, processed foods and an easy access to restaurants and takeaways. In short, our food environment has shifted from slow-cooked home food to fast-cooked, pre-processed and processed foods.

Pre-processed, processed and fast foods contain excess fat, sugar and salt which are unhealthy. Consumption of such foods,

add to our existing body weight and have other effects like elevating blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. These foods are high in calories and low in fiber, fruits and vegetables. This directly impacts the body’s tendency to gain weight.

A healthy food environment implies a better access to slow-cooked home food, foods that are rich in fiber and grains with an adequate balance of fruits and vegetables. A NHS study, found obesity linked to the demographic distribution of fast food outlets in various neighborhoods in the UK. The conclusive evidence points to the fact that healthy food environments are essential to control and manage obesity.

2. Built Environment

Built environment refers to human-made surroundings including homes, offices, commercial establishments and open spaces. Urban sprawls and shrinking open spaces like parks, gardens, jogging, walking and cycling tracks make physical activity less appealing.

People in polluted environment find it unhealthy to walk and use other forms of transport even for shorter distances. Unprecedented land area development and construction of buildings lowers the scope for physical activity, as more and more buildings appear

and open spaces, parks and gardens disappear.

Urbanization, industrialization, traffic and pollution have a direct impact on activity spaces available for physical exercise. Low-income neighborhoods are especially affected by urban sprawls and shrinking open spaces. Lack of access to physical activity spaces is one of the factors contributing to obesity, especially among urbanites.3

3. Social Environment

Certain social factors may be linked to obesity as well. Poverty, for example, may cause some people to buy high-calorie processed foods because they typically cost less than healthier foods.

Opportunities for exercise may be limited if there are no recreation areas in the neighborhood, if the area is considered unsafe or not conducive to activities like walking or jogging, and/or if gym memberships are too expensive.

Changing paradigms in work and occupation patterns also lead to obesity epidemics. As the human race transitioned from the agricultural to industrial and currently digital age, our mode of working changed from

hard labor in open fields to sedentary jobs in front of the computer.

This has drastically cut down our physical activity as we spend more time sitting. Work environment that requires long hours of sitting, directly impacts obesity. While most professions require computer work, it is also imperative to factor in adequate breaks and some physical activity if we have to deal with obesity and manage optimal weight.

Our lifestyle, working environment and food consumption have direct links to obesity, i.e. when we cannot access healthy food or find the time and space for adequate physical activity.