Human obesity is a serious public health issue that presents detrimental physical, social, and mental health consequences. There are many cultural, economic and political factors that all have association to the relationship between the built environment and its influence on obesity. The prevalent rise in obesity has been linked to a variety of direct and indirect causes including area of residences, resources, television, walkability, land use and many more (Booth et al., 2005). Understanding the impact of the built environment on obesity may provide the information necessary to develop successful prevention methods. Obesity occurs due to a complex interaction between diet, physical activity, and the environment (Papas et al., 2007). Studies have shown that there is relevance between human obesity and disadvantaged environments of low socioeconomic status. I presume that disadvantaged populations are more likely to live in communities that do not support healthy choices. This paper seeks to prove that a higher prevalence of human obesity is most commonly found in environments of disadvantaged populations. Populations that lack the proper cultural, economic and political influence towards a healthy environment, see a consequent increase in human obesity.
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Obesity is defined as someone having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater (Carlos et al., 1999). Health Canada classifies a” normal” BMI ratio to be 18.5-24.9 and “slightly overweight” to be 25-29.9 (Statcan, 2010). Overweight obesity has more recently been a public health concern for western societies since in non-industrial and anti-western societies these health problems are essentially nonexistent. Particularly in North America and many European countries, the prevalence of obesity has nearly doubled in recent decades and has been rising over the last century (Carlos et al., 1999). The industrialization of the food supply making food more readily available and at a reduced cost has caused greater consumption and heightened unawareness to its low nutritional value. Obesity can cause multiple health consequences including but not limited to hyper tension, dyslipidaemia (cholesterol and/or fat in the blood), chronic inflammation, blood clotting, and hyperinsulinaemia (high insulin blood levels) (Ebbeling et al., 2002). With childhood obesity having an increasing prevalence, a heavier focus has been set upon resolving this public health crisis through more effective research funding, new dietary awareness, physical activity, and environmental changes.
The associations between obesity and the environment have been consistent in recent studies. Multiple Medline and Google Scholar searches were conducted using keywords “obesity”, “neighborhood”, “western culture”, “built environment” or “environment”. Medline provided many public health oriented articles that were essential to my research and also directed me to resources from Statistics Canada. Google Scholar provided majority of my articles as there was a greater amount of information on cultural affects and social inequalities. Many results from my keywords used in the Google search were much more apparent and led me to a few articles that have done some more particular research on the subject of obesity as an environmental issue. Since this issue is increasing relevant today I chose to filter the publication year for articles after the mid 90’s. Many of my results were articles with a more specific focus on the obesity issue (i.e cultural, economic, political) which is how I chose to organize the discussion of my research.
It has become well known that societies transitioning further into westernized culture are experiencing substantial increases in obesity (Carlos et al., 1999). The culture of the environment can contribute significantly to obesity by promoting problematic dietary and activity patterns. Some argue that modern western culture carries a sense of materialism and individualism which have tended to be detrimental to human health (Eckersley, 2006). The built environment is compromised by the advertising and marketing effect of materialism. The goal of this marketing becomes to make us “dissatisfied with what we have but also with who are” (Eckersley, 2006). In areas of disadvantaged populations the influence of culture and materialism can largely cause a need for greater consumption where then financial instability becomes disabling. I presume that, particularly with families, meeting the materialistic needs of youth born into a highly capitalized world can result in making financial sacrifices. Disadvantaged populations are the most compromised as the financial burden of materialism can lead to a decreased attention to healthy choices and proper nourishment. This also raises the assumption that less attention is given to choice of food where then the decision is made purely based upon its price. Materialist culture has an underlying obsession of wanting to get the best value and a great example of this was when fast food industries increased their portions sizes (Carlos et al., 1999). Cheaper fast-food type diet contains a large caloric intake which contributes highest to risks of obesity (Liu et al., 2007). An increased proportion of children’s meals are being comprised of high calorie fast foods which are implicated as an important cause of obesity (Liu et al., 2007). Fast food corporations understand that they are the cheaper alternative for poorer neighborhoods. They then see a greater presence of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores than wealthier neighborhoods with supermarkets (Booth et al., 2005). Aside from unhealthy nutrition, materialistic culture sees the introduction of new innovations yearly. New technology is principally the cause for the greater prevalence of obesity since there becomes little or no time for physical activity. Television and computers appear to be the most significant products contributing to inactivity among adults and particularly children (Carlos et al., 1999). ‘Nature deficit disorder’ is a term coined by Richard Louv in response to children’s lack of connection with the natural environment in today’s technological world (Louv, 2005). Louv gives light to the unhealthy trend of indoor inactivity and its effects on children’s health. Studies have shown that individuals leading inactive western lifestyles are incompatible with human evolution, especially when compared to those leading active lifestyles (i.e. hunter-gatherers and rudimentary farmers) (Carlos et al., 1999). The built environment has lost its use among children who preferably remain inactive and inside. I presume that this is even more prevalent in areas of disadvantaged populations since the built environment lacks the funding to encourage areas of physical activity.
Obesity is largely linked to the commercial food powers whose economic interests do not account for their habitual influence on public diet choices and consumption habits. The power of commercial marketing and business strategies have been so influential that nearly half of Americans’ total annual food purchases in 2004 were for food fully prepared and consumed at home or outside (Tillotson, 2004). Economic growth through food industrialization sees advances that make processed food even more readily available, assured, ample and affordable. The commercialization of the food supply gives great incentive to corporations to increase sales by increasing demand (Tillotson, 2004). This results in a conflict between economic and public health policies as proven by our modern obesity problem. Corporations are focusing solely on cost benefit analysis (CBA) which sees that costs do not exceed benefits. Ways of increasing demand result in reducing the price of food or enlarging the size of the meal. Corporations will begin to weigh the costs for meeting new demand and use lower quality foods with poor nutritional quality in order to meet higher profits (Ebbeling et al., 2002). I presume the food corporations have understood that areas of lower income and disadvantaged populations are a vulnerable demographic since nutrition is less imperative than price. With greater volumes in these areas, corporations will flood the environment with close-by highly accessible food locations that contribute to the economic landscape.
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America holds one of the greatest densities of obese individuals which reflect upon their economic system in favor of continuous growth and expanding markets (Tillotson, 2004). The food industries have seen constant growth and profitability, solidifying their place as one of the largest economic priorities (Tillotson, 2004). The marketing campaigns and business strategies keep food businesses increasingly memorable in your mind with excessive advertising of all forms. Fast food industries have enormous marketing expenditures where an estimated US$12.7 billion had been used to fund campaigns such as those that target children by linking brand names and toys with their food (Ebbeling, 2002). I gather that the rise in technology and communication has contributed profusely to these advertising strategies and why child obesity continues to rise. From my own experience, an individual can now order food from their computing device and have it delivered promptly without having to leave your home. As encouragement to remain inside continues to have rising influence over the consumer, I believe a greater amount of funding is required to promote healthy alternative eating. With poor nutritional food corporations benefiting from enormous expenditures for advertising, funding for readily available nutritional food needs to find the similar viral promotion that fast food corporations continue to abuse.
Neighborhoods with low socioeconomic status tend to have less municipal funding for physical activity resources than medium-to high socioeconomic neighborhoods, which in turn leads to further inactivity of its residents (Booth et al., 2005). An active political system is important for policy-making and can have an important direct influence on physical and social environmental factors that have been shown to influence obesity and related behaviours (Liu et al., 2007). Public regulation and promotion for positive public health is an essential part of political governing, and should continually promote access to parks or outdoor spaces that can be attributed by increasing the physical activity in youth. Neighborhoods that are planned and safe include a mixture of houses, commercial, retail, and recreation destinations that often see results in physical activity and social capital against obesity (Booth et al., 2005). Along with various funding for available neighborhood destinations, pedestrian facilities and public transportation help facilitate walking and bicycling for transportation. Low income areas are thought to be more affected by their environments because their activity spaces are smaller and-or constrained by a lacking infrastructure such as land use that does not support healthy lifestyles. Disadvantaged populations require community design factors that will get individuals engaging in greater physical activity. Studies have shown that those with poor access to recreation facilities and public space had a 68% greater chance of becoming obese (Booth et al., 2005). Community planning and public funding requires the need for better residential connectivity, with greater accessible land use, enhanced aesthetics and pedestrian safety. Municipalities that support healthy living insure that there is a level of residential density, street accessibility, and a mix of public land use. Particularly in areas where child obesity is relevant, physical activity access such as bicycling trails, parks and playgrounds are all associated with a political system that is driven to provide activities in part with public health initiatives. Disadvantaged populations lack the political presence and funding in order to make their community a safe encouraging environment to engage with. This reflects the relationship between the higher prevalence of obesity and the absence of an engaging built environment.
An environmental change is largely a target for intervention towards areas with prevalent growth of obesity. Public health efforts must be in effect in order to see influence on reducing the caloric intake and fast food availability. The relevance between human obesity and disadvantaged populations of low socioeconomic environments had seen a link throughout the paper. Our modern day culture is heavily influenced by new technologies and products that have compromised the relations between humans and their environment. Areas that lack the built environment to encourage physical activity will continue to be overpowered by materialistic culture that essentially influences individuals to remain inactive and inside. With global food suppliers increasingly becoming overpowered by corporations supporting high caloric fast-food of low nutritional value, a large change in economic priority is required in order to focus less on profits and more on public health. I suggest that this economic priority can be modified by political action whereby better regulation of the environment can insure that there is a healthy mix of land use to encourage active lifestyles while also limiting the overwhelming presence of unhealthy food businesses. I propose that wealthy fast-food corporations should give subsidy to local municipalities towards improving healthy infrastructures as I believe they can economically afford to do so and can give disadvantaged populations an active built environment to help combat human obesity.
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