Overweight and Obesity – Who is to blame? By Concetta Masterson

While a lot has been said about the causes of obesity, there is a common thread to all – we reach too often for the packet of chips and not often enough for the gym gear. But, even this sentence alone makes it painfully clear that the individual is at fault. They are the ones who put food in their mouth and stay on the couch, and there’s no denying the truth in that. In 2018 in Australia, the majority of adults are overweight or obese(1), a pattern that’s replicated around the world, and obesity comes with serious health impacts. Health impacts like increased risk of noncommunicable diseases such as some cancers, cardiovascular disease, and type II diabetes to name a few(2).

So, we know that there’s a problem. But, what would be better to know is why there is a problem. After all, if we could stop this behaviour before it begins, we might have a much smaller fight on our hands. Why are we giving into temptation now and not before? Again, opinions differ – the food industry, industrialisation – others still credit increasingly stressful lives.

Ericksen P, Ingram J, Liverman D. Food security and global environmental change: emerging challenges. Environ Sci Policy [internet]. 2009 [cited 2016 Mar 15];12(4): 373–77.

However, as with many problems, taking a step back often makes it much clearer. We live in environments that have become increasingly obesogenic, meaning they are conducive to weight gain. They encourage overconsumption by making you hungry all the time, with constant exposure to advertising for foods that our brain finds rewarding, and then making sure that these foods are as readily available as possible.

So, who’s at fault? The food industry, in the end, is no more than a collection of companies, who some would argue have no obligation to look after the health of the public. Creating an obesity epidemic was probably never their aim.

Is it the people who put the food in their mouths and then don’t exercise enough to use up the energy? Where does food availability come in? Should this be regulated more carefully by governments and where does one draw the line? At what point do we take away the choice of the consumer because we deem them unable to make a good choice?

The likely conclusion is that it’s neither and all, and we can think about this with an analogy. Imagine that the burden of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and a healthy weight (for the purposes of this post), is a large boulder that you need to push throughout the course of your life. For those who live in an obesogenic environment, the boulder has to be pushed up hill, while those who live in healthier environments push their boulders on less of an incline. That is, the same burden that is placed on the individual (the boulder), becomes easier or harder to push depending on the environmental factors that surround it.

It is essential for individuals to be considered in the context of their environments. Humans haven’t changed – our environment has. We need action at all levels to level the playing field for everyone who has to make choices about their health every day. At the moment, our public health response to improving the healthy environment in Australia and globally is not good enough.

Blaming the individual may be convenient but it’s not productive and won’t actually fix the problem.

One of the main targets of AMSA Healthy Communities, the newest global health group that focuses on noncommunicable disease prevention and awareness promotion, is the obesogenic environment. This year, we hope to alter the environments that we live in for the better, by pushing for state governments to improve the food environment in healthcare facilities, not only making healthy choices easier to make for all those who engage with the healthcare system, but also setting an example for other industries nationally and other health systems globally.

This is just one of the many exciting ideas that we have planned for this year and beyond. If you would like to be involved with AMSA Healthy Communities, or have any ideas that you’d like to see become a reality, please feel free to contact me at concetta.masterson@amsa.org.au.

Concetta Masterson

AMSA Healthy Communities National Coordinator

More information:

  1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). 20 June 2018. Australia’s health 2018. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-health/australias-health-2018/contents/table-of-contents.
  2. World Health Organisation (WHO). 1 June 2018. Noncommunicable diseases. http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/noncommunicable-diseases.