The Weight Gain Train
Too many accelerators, not enough brakes
Do you have any hot buttons? You know, the kind of thing that can instantly put you in the alert mode with your back stiffened, your muscles tightened and your tongue ready to lash out with a different perspective that doesn’t seem to be getting any attention. Lately one of my hot buttons is the endless call for “personal responsibility” for achieving a healthy weight. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a firm believer in personal responsibility and believe we have far too little of the commodity in today’s modern world. What I would like to see is a teaming of the call for “personal responsibility” with a concentrated effort to change environmental factors that encourage over consumption of energy dense food and discourage regular daily physical activity. Two authors from Australia (Boyd Swinburn and Garry Egger) recently wrote an article for the British Medical Journal that I found to be a refreshing perspective on the alarming global obesity rate.
I took a class on problem solving a couple decades ago and the presenter spent about three-fourths of the class time on step one of his approach: Define the problem. He suggested that many problems resurface over and over again because we fail to clearly define the problem. For example, in one office setting, two co-workers were repeatedly in conflict resolution efforts. Until the core problem was clearly defined (lack of respect for each other), all attempts to resolve the problem were unsuccessful. What I really liked about this article was the authors’ ability (at least from my perspective) to more clearly define the world obesity trends. Perhaps with the obesity issue more clearly defined, we can now move to step two of problem solving (review all possible alternatives).
The authors suggest that more and more people world-wide live in “obesogenic environments” (obesity promoting environments). In the article, they go on to describe the “accelerators” for weight gain and compare this to a “runaway weight gain train.” The authors also suggest that any brakes available to slow down the train are not strong enough to stop the train’s forward momentum.
Among the “accelerators” on the weight gain train include energy dense snacks, high sugar beverages, heavy promotion of these foods to children, low cost of energy dense foods, large serving sizes, housing environments designed to discourage physical activity, and vehicle-oriented transportation systems.
The authors suggest one of the most powerful brakes for weight gain in Western societies is the social discrimination of being overweight or obese. Other brakes are the discomforts and illnesses associated with obesity (joint pain, sleep apnea, diabetes, heart disease, etc.). While these brakes are substantial, they clearly are not strong enough to stop the momentum of the ever accelerating weight gain train. Knowledge about the fundamental causes of weight gain (too much food, too little physical activity) is common, but “knowledge alone seems to be a weak predictor of human behavior.”
One of the cycles described in the article is the association between body dissatisfaction and weight gain. The authors suggest that large individuals who suffer from body dissatisfaction and social stigmatization are more prone to depression, anxiety, feelings of low self esteem and guilt. The consequences of these conditions are often additional weight gain from comfort eating, increased alcohol consumption, and/or binge eating. This becomes an endless cycle of increased body dissatisfaction and increased caloric intake.
The authors state the greatest problem with weight loss diets is their unsustainability. Furthermore, the sense of failure from unsuccessful dieting increases the psychological problems described in the previous bullet. Additionally, for some people, being deprived a certain favorite food (such as chocolate) often leads to a heightened desire for the food.
The article recognizes that neighborhoods with a low socioeconomic status are usually more obesognenic (obesity promoting). Higher levels of chronic stress due to constant financial worries could also increase the incidence of comfort and stress eating.
The authors make a concluding point on the inequitable impact of obesogenic environments on individuals. Individuals who are slender by genetic design may gain a little weight in obesogenic environments. By contrast, individuals who tend to gain weight easily will gain a lot of weight in the same environments.
Source: Swinburn B, Egger G. The runaway weight gain train: too many accelerators, not enough brakes. British Medical Journal. 2004;329:736-739.
Compiled by Betty Holmes, MS, RD
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