“It’s the environment, stupid.”
|August 28, 2010||Posted by Lauren under Health News|
Okay, so I realize that starting off a post by calling you stupid isn’t exactly the best way to gain readers. But we all know I don’t really mean you. So just hear me out. And I promise I won’t call you stupid again!
Have you ever come across an article that so perfectly expresses everything you want to say, that you wish you wrote it yourself?
That’s what happened yesterday, when I found this article in the Business section of the New York Times. Now, I know what you’re thinking – this is a health blog. Why is this girl suddenly getting so fired up about business?? Well – I’m not. Not really, anyway. But the truth is that health affects all aspects of life. And even though being healthy makes you feel better and improves your personal quality of life, it has an economic impact as well. So a healthy world full of healthy people really benefits us all.
Anyway, the article, called Fixing a World That Fosters Fat, is all about how the environment is negatively impacting our health. This is what public health has been nagging people about for years…so you can imagine how exciting it was for me to see the same message appearing in the business section of a paper.
I would highly recommend reading the entire article. It’s only 1 page long and is really, really good. Or you could just read the summary below, complete with a little HOTR-commentary.
A World that Fosters Fat
We all know that the general health of America is not very good. Chronic disease is on the rise, mostly due to a huge increase in obesity across the nation. The simple solution to this problem? Well, eat less junk and move more, of course!
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Anyone who has ever worked in the field of behavior change knows that it’s pretty tough to get people to change their habits, especially if they aren’t ready to make that change. To make the issue even more complicated, we live in an environment that is not very supportive of a healthy lifestyle. We only have to make a trip to our local grocery store (if we even have one!) to see this is true. What are the most expensive things in there? The fresh organic produce, and the whole, minimally processed foods. On top of this, we work longer hours, have longer commutes, are bombarded with unhealthy advertising and cheap fast food chains, and don’t always have a safe, affordable place to exercise.
Dr. Brownell, who is the director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale says:
“Everyone knows that you shouldn’t eat junk food and you should exercise. But the environment makes it so difficult that fewer people can do these things, and then you have a public health catastrophe.”
So then, what should we do? To put it simply — we need to stop relying solely on trying to change individual behavior. You can’t expect a person to stick with new, healthy habits if you put them back into the same unhealthy environment. In order to help people make these lifestyle shifts, we need to change the culture and the environment in which they live.
This is, in essence, what the course I attended last week was all about (for more info on that, click here). Putting the emphasis on fixing the environment so that healthy choices are made easier.
It’s important to note that I am not suggesting that we as individuals don’t need to take any personal responsibility for our own health. This isn’t an excuse to throw up our hands and say, “It’s not my fault. There’s nothing I can do!” But I am recognizing that there are lots of barriers that can get in our way. And depending on the social, economic, and physical environment you are in, those barriers can be pretty intimidating.
Two Potential Fixes
Obviously it’s going to take a lot to completely change our environment. But it’s all about the small steps, right? The article suggests two big fixes that could go a long way in changing America’s habits:
1.) Equalizing food pricing. A big reason that fast food is so cheap is because of the government subsidies of corn and soybeans – two crops that are hugely relied on by the industry. Just how big of an impact do these subsidies have? According to the article, the inflation-adjusted price of a McDonald’s quarter pounder with cheese went down by 5.44% from 1997 – 2003. On the other hand, from 1997 – 2003, the inflation adjusted price of fruit and veggies rose by 17%! Getting rid of the subsidies that support unhealthy food could fix this trend.
2.) Involving the private sector. The health problems caused by obesity and its related chronic diseases cost employers a lot of money every year. Companies can help promote healthier lifestyles (and reduce these costs), by finding ways to lower work-related stress, building on-site fitness centers, including healthy snacks/drinks in vending machines, and offering wellness programs and incentives.
These aren’t the only things that need to be done, but they do symbolize an overall shift in our culture. A culture that needs to start valuing equal access to healthy, affordable foods and safe places to exercise and play. And a culture that puts more emphasis on the joy of cooking and exercising and less effort into finding the quick, simple solution.
The environment’s affect on us is a complicated one. To learn more, I would highly recommend watching the documentary Unnatural Causes, if you haven’t already. It’s a 7-part documentary put out by PBS that’s all about how the social and physical environments we live in impact our health. The entire series is pretty long (about 4 hours) but it is split up into 7 different episodes. You can learn more about each episode and see clips from the film here.
**In case you didn’t read it and now think I’m just an extremely rude person, the title of this post is a direct quote from the article.