By Paulette Cully
In the search for the environmental causes of weight gain, Smith and Cummins (2009) in a Geography Compass article, explore how aspects of our environment might disrupt the ‘energy balance’ through influencing food consumption and physical activity. Being overweight or obese, is indirectly associated with an increased risk of death through its role as a major risk factor for a wide range of chronic diseases including coronary heart disease and some cancers, Obesity is also directly associated with other serious health problems including hypertension, diabetes and osteoarthritis. The fact that the rapid rise in obesity rates over the last 30 years – which is a relatively short biological time scale – suggests that changes in the environments to which we are exposed may be to blame, rather than individual genetic legacy. Focusing on developed world nations, the article reviews the emerging ‘ecological’ perspective in the search for the causes of obesity and focuses on three hypothesised pathways. The first is the organisation of the built physical space which for instance, may not promote walking as a means of transport or recreation (such as footpaths) and connectivity of residential areas, limited access to leisure facilities, fewer supermarkets and a relatively high accessibility to fast food/takeaway shops. The second is the social environment, which can influence eating habits, both in terms of the types of food consumed and the amount of calories eaten at a meal. The third is the political environment, which can for instance influence low-income consumers to purchase less expensive food options which may exceed dietary guidelines of fat, salt and sugar intake.
With the above in mind, the coalition Government unveiled a 250 million pound plan over the New Year weekend, which is financed by the food industry, to promote good eating. As part of the Change4Life programme the scheme is aimed at combating Britain’s high obesity rate by encouraging people to eat more healthily and to exercise more. The Government has pledged to stop lecturing people and instead nudge them toward a healthier lifestyle. Under the scheme millions of people will receive vouchers which offer discounts on healthy eating. In England millions of people will get 50 pounds’ worth of vouchers giving discounts on foods such as low-fat yogurts, whole grain rice, frozen vegetables, fruit and alcohol-free lager. The News of the World will distribute three million books of vouchers, Asda, will hand out a million and community groups a further million. However, some experts have accused food manufacturers of using it to enhance their image because the vouchers offer discounts on products from food companies including Kellogg, Unilever, Nestle, Mars, Warburtons, Bird’s Eye and some Asda own-brand goods and trainers from JJB Sports. The Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said the scheme was a “great example of how government, the media, industry and retailers can work together to help families to be healthy.” In response, a board member of the National Obesity Forum, set up by doctors to highlight the health consequences of obesity, called the programme a step in the right direction but said it was too short-term to change people’s mindset about food. Only time will tell.