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“It’s the environment, stupid.”

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.

fast_food (Source)

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!

Obesity US 1994 Percent of Obese Adults (BMI >=30) in the US in 1994

Obesity US 2009Percent of Obese Adults in US 15 years later (2009)


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.

corn_field (Source)

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.

vending machine_veggies(Source)

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.

20 Responses to “It’s the environment, stupid.”

  1. This is an awesome post! I completely agree with the argument that health is about more than individual behavior and attitudes; it’s also about the culture and social environment. We need a two-pronged strategy, one that focuses both on individual and structural-level changes. Interesting stuff!
    Katie @ Health for the Whole Self´s last post ..My Kitchen Bucket List

    • Yes! There definitely has to be a focus on BOTH! If we want real changes to be made (and to stick!), we can’t only try to change/fix one without also working on the other.

  2. I am really interested in public health and love this post! I am definitely going to carve out some time to watch that documentary. We are faced with a societal problem that runs strong and deep and I really think the business sector must be involved to create change.
    Becky´s last post ..Sweet- Sweet Seventeen

  3. YES! I think it’s a big move that the Times has started giving Public Health and Food issues a lot more press. I feel like I continuously hit my head against a wall thinking about how it is possible to change our culture. As terrible as it sounds, I hope this big egg scare gives a few wake up calls. This could be a good way to start informing people about not just the lack of regulation, but about the politics behind what we eat (especially since the Farm Bill is up again). I think it will also be interesting to see what happens when health care reform is in full effect. Will employers offer more “healthy” initiatives and better work environments? I hope so. But I also think that a large margin of the population that truly needs help are low income, and certainly will not have access to corporate perks. If there is a way to help the population from the very lowest income group, in my mind it will only be easier to work up. But I also know that is no small challenge.
    Alex @ IEatAsphalt´s last post ..If I Were A Farmer

    • I agree. Getting this stuff in the press is the first step, since the reality is that more people listen to what the NYTimes has to say than APHA or CDC.

      And I agree with you about the egg recall. It’s awful, but the timing may actually help get the bill passed…which will hopefully improve things in the long run.

      I think more employers will end up offering programs/incentives to support health because it’ll ultimately come down to their bottom line. Once they can be convinced that doing these things will improve their profits, I think more and more will come on board. But you’re right — the population that faces the biggest health disparities is the one that isn’t going to be covered by these big companies. Which is why efforts focused on the overall environment (like getting rid of food/park deserts, equalizing pricing for healthy foods, providing better access to affordable health care, etc) are so important. Definitely a huge challenge!! But that’s why public health needs more people like you to help change the world. :)

  4. i couldnt agree more about shifting the focus in favor on what we CAN do to make healthy alternatives and lifestyles more appealing to the general public. anytime we focus on whats bad and wrong, we tend to get a lot of stress on what is right..so confusing and so many mixed messages. by just pointing out the things that promote a healthy world, we’re able to construct new ways of living sustainably in this world. and the bonus is that slowly the corrupt parts of life start to fall out of focus naturally.. and businesses learn to either make a change or go bankrupt!


    • You’re right. Once we can create a large market for all these healthier options (and sustainable lifestyles), business will have to change if they want to keep making a profit! The hard part is just getting to that point…

  5. I agree with you 100%, but did you have any doubt? 😉

    This is such an important issue. I think we forget how much impact our environment has on our behaviors. It’s sometimes easier to blame people foe their “choices”?

    There are groups of people in our country- from rural places in SC, to the outskirts of major cities in Chicago, to Native American reservations in NM- that are food deserts. Meaning people who live there don’t have transportation to get to healthy food, and their only option for the entire diet is food sold at convenience stores or fast-food restaurants. People in these communities may also not have access to a safe place to exercise. So what are they supposed to do? It’s so, so sad. Luckily, this is one of Mrs. Obama’s biggest concerns so I hope some kind of action is taken to remedy this problem.

    Great post, Lauren :)
    Jen´s last post ..18 on foot- 612 on wheels

    • Yeah, sometimes it definitely seems easier to just blame the individuals — because that’s something concrete we can fix (or at least we think we can). Actually changing the environment is a much more complicated issue!

      And I hope all the national attention that is surrounding childhood obesity and fixing food/play deserts will help build up momentum. I know it’s not an easy fix, but hopefully we’re at least starting to head in the right direction.

  6. Awesome post Lauren! I’m with you on this. We get slammed in this environment by junk food and the “appearance” of how wonderful it tastes. I think it’s terrible how much the price difference is between junk and fruits and veggies. So many people cannot afford a lot of the healthy items out there. Something has to be done.
    Lindsay´s last post ..Goodbye Weekend

    • Thanks!! I think it’s terrible, too. And it’s frustrating that there isn’t a simple solution. We know what should be done, but I don’t think anyone really knows how to get it done at this point.

  7. Get on your soap box, I enjoy hearing your thoughts. What an excellent post.
    – We live in an environment that is not very supportive of a healthy lifestyle. -> SO true! I mean we have to claim the fittest cities in the US and most of them are because the cities are creating areas in which people can walk, run, bike, etc.

    • haha, thanks because I like it up here. 😉

      Cities that have been planned out to encourage exercise and active/healthy living are definitely ahead of the curve. Hopefully more places across the country will start moving in that direction

  8. This is such a great post about a really important topic. I am reading the Omnivores Dilemma and just saw Food Inc so these ideas have been top of mind for me for a few days. I completely agree that equalizing food prices is a HUGE factor in promoting a more healthy lifestyle for all. The reality is some people have to make sacrifices to their health when there is a higher price tag involved so if we could ensure that it was cheaper to buy fresh produce then fast food it would be much easier to encourage people to eat better. Education is key but at the end of the day if you can’t afford it then no amount of information can change that which is sad.

    • So true! It doesn’t matter how much people know if they just don’t have access to the healthy choices. It’s sad that it comes down to a financial issue for so many families. It’s not a very fair system.

  9. This is such a great post. I agree that there needs to be a huge overall and mindset change across America for any real change to happen. I just don’t know when/if that will ever happen. Sigh.
    Teri [a foodie stays fit]´s last post ..Easy Indian Dal my football-watching dog

  10. While I’m against regulating any type of business, bad for you or not, I do believe people can make decisions for themselves. I personally know people that goto McD’s with their kids at least 4 mornings a week for breakfast. Talk about making you sick….. Anyway, this individual complains about their weight all the time, yet instead of waking up an hour earlier to make breakfast for them and their kids, they goto McD’s.

    I in no way support any regulation against Fast Food, but I do support programs and ideas that will help change people. The environment is bad, but you still have the ability to chose between right and wrong.

    Now that I got that off my chest, I have to say, you are RIGHT! While one side of me says that it is unfair that fast food is cheaper than healthier foods, the other side of me says, welcome to American, the only place in the world you can start a business and charge what you want for your products. It still sucks that healthier foods cost so much, but there is a solution to that as well.

    Farmers markets are super good places to pick up real organic foods. Not the “organic” foods that you see at Martins packaged none-recyclable packaging.

    In my area, we can get organic everything from the farmers market, 24 hours fresh! I can get a bushel of fresh peaches for $14 ( about 20 peaches).

    Farmers markets are everywhere, big cities, small towns, it would e in-accurate to say “I live in a big city, I don’t have farmers markets.”. You probably just weren’t looking.

    Wow, I’m long winded this morning. Anywho thats my shhhpeeel!

    Thanks for the good article!
    Jim@goingFitness´s last post ..Please “like” my blog!

    • Hi Jim — thanks for your comment and for weighing in on the discussion! I agree that we can’t ignore the factor of personal responsibility. People can make their own choices…and they should be able to. But I think the larger issue is that there are certain things in the environment that make it a lot harder to make those healthy choices (like cost and access). Farmers markets are a great solution, but not all of them accept WIC or SNAP (i.e. food stamps). So even though they may be there, they may still be inaccessible to many low income families.

      And you’re right. There are aspects about America and capitalism that make it easy for anyone to own their own business, which is great. But it’s not all a fair/even market. When crops like corn are so highly subsidized, it’s no wonder so many unhealthy fast foods and products with HFCS are so cheap!

      I think that true change will only come when we combine the programs to help change/educate people with programs that change the environment — and make it easier for people to make the healthy choice for themselves and their families.

      • Yeah, you do have a good point with low-income issues such as the single parent with 4 kids to take care. That’s a tough deal.

        I think education is going to be the only way out of something like this. Perhaps the Government can help pay for some schooling of some kind to teach people the consequences and to help them better themselves.

        Not everyone has the Internet like us either so maybe some street to street education is needed.
        Jim@goingFitness´s last post ..Please “like” my blog!

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