Obesogenic environment: origin and consequences


This month’s edition highlights the extraordinary and relatively recent changes in food habits across the Western World which inevitably increase the risk of obesity and other disabilities for the majority of our populations. Three countries are highlighted – Australia, Germany and Norway – which have very different economies, indigenous foods and political processes for dealing with food chain regulations. Yet despite the discerning analyses of expert doctors and nutritionists with advice to policy makers, dramatic and unhealthy changes in food habits have occurred starting in the early 1980s. At that time I was personally just embarking on assessing the impact of different foods on energy balance and appetite control, while at the same time being called on by the UK government to help improve the effi ciency and indeed, the economic opportunities of the food industry. I soon discovered that the food industry only had a crude idea using simple taste panels of how to make their foods more attractive – there was really little scientifi c understanding of how to increase food sales.

Now, as a result of brilliant analyses of the psychology of food choice, the food industries have developed a system for selling processed foods and drinks at all times of the day and night with people eating and drinking on the move and at all times of the day.

Sophisticated marketing techniques include fundamental biological tricks involving the addition of poorly specifi ed fl avours which selectively trigger the brain pleasure centres and circumvent rational, considered food choices. These circumstances explain why the UK Chief Scientist’s Foresight analysis of the obesity problem specifi ed that weight gain in current circumstances was everybody’s normal biological response to our food environment.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the latest 2015 global burden of disease analyses confi rm previous analyses showing that inappropriate diets are the biggest cause of global disability. WHO experts have also just advocated using fi scal measures to tax, for example, sugar in the diet and to subsidise the purchase of vegetables and fruit. We are going to have to use major societally transforming measures if we are to develop an appropriate sustainable food system for the long term well-being of society.

See next article