Obesogenic environment – the impact our environment has on our eating habits

The problem

To this day, the problem of obesity shows no signs of diminishing and, globally, obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. Being overweight and obese is linked to more deaths worldwide than being underweight. Globally, there are more people who are obese than underweight – this occurs in every region except parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Moreover, severe obesity was extremely rare before the early 1970s but has since increased faster than obesity, with no evidence of slowing down. A study conducted by Finkelstein et al. estimates a 33% increase in obesity prevalence and a 130% increase in severe obesity prevalence over the next 2 decades. If these forecasts prove accurate, this will further hinder efforts for healthcare cost containment. Given the relationship between excess weight, poor health, and high medical expenditures, successful cost containment efforts will need to address obesity.

Obesity in numbers

Overweight and obesity are defined as an abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that may impair health. More specifically, obesity is defined as having a BMI greater than or equal to 30, at which point, it is medically important to lose weight. In left unaddressed, obesity increases the risk of metabolic diseases in addition to various physical complaints. According to the Bureau Statistics Netherlands, almost half of all adult Dutch people are moderately or seriously overweight.

Who is to blame?

In the last decade, scientists are increasingly asking themselves: “Can we blame part of the observed obese trend on our environment which is often promoting overeating and unhealthy food choices?”. Some scientists agree we indeed can and identify the term obesogenic environment as one of the causes of today’s obesity rates. Others claim the term “obesogenic environment” is just a useful way to put the responsibility on policymakers, rather than just blaming individuals for getting fat.

Obesity has a strong socioeconomic profile and disproportionately affects the lives of poorer groups in society, thereby contributing to growing health inequalities at all levels. This is why governments should be aware and address the issue of today’s obesogenic environment, not only the food service providers themselves. While the basic drivers of obesity are simple (more energy consumed than expended), the etiology is multifactorial and complex. Therefore, establishing direct causal pathways is difficult. Nevertheless, in order to reduce and eventually stop this ongoing trend of obesity, we need to support consumers in making healthy choices by offering healthier food choices. Foodservice industries can take their responsibility to seduce consumers towards the healthier choices instead of the calorie dense products which are low in (micro)nutrients.

Practice shows that with western food trends coming to other parts of the world, obesity becomes more prevalent. Let’s take China as an example: with an increasingly urban population and a growing demand for international cuisines, it is no wonder China is home to a high number of fast-food brands.  All of that results in physical costs for Chinese citizens. Global Times found that China now has the largest overweight population in the world – 10.8% of men and 14.9% of women in a nation of 1.4 billion people. These figures are shocking and by failing to do something about the newly adopted food habits, China wins the race for obesity against the USA. Similar consequences appearing wherever western food habits are introduced give evidence that indeed, food environments more similar to the western ones have severe negative effects on dietary intake and obesity rates of citizens.

Features of the obesogenic environment promoting overeating

1. Increased availability and accessibility of food in our food environment

The term food environment encompasses both food prepared and consumed at home and out-of-home sources. These include vending machines, takeaways, cafes, restaurants, supermarkets, and convenience stores. Overall, food prepared out-of-home tends to be more convenient foods that often are calorie dense and high in sugar, salt or fat as compared to food prepared in-home. Eating food prepared out-of-home is a growing trend and makes a substantial contribution to our dietary intake. The supply of (high-calorie) food has increased, partly because of the ease of obtaining. Food is present almost everywhere resulting in an environment that is constantly inviting you to eat (too much), all the time. Low prices, variety and the multitude of options play a significant role. Just being exposed to food can trigger a need to eat something, even if initially not planning to do so. A study exploring the multiple environments of home, work, and takeaway food access in the United Kingdom found those with greatest overall access were nearly twice as likely to be obese compared to those with least access.

2. Enlarged portion sizes

In tandem with the increased prevalence of overweight and obesity, an increase in food portion sizes has also been observed, with studies showing that portion sizes of numerous energy-dense foods have increased in the past decades, also highlighting the introduction of ‘super-sized’ portions. These growing food portion sizes might well be one of the factors contributing to the increased prevalence of overweight and obesity in adults. Home-cooked meal sizes, as stated in a popular Danish cookbook, have also increased over the past 100 years.

Psychological mechanisms contributing to rising of portion sizes:

  • The ‘unit bias’ mechanism- people see one serving (e.g. one sandwich, one can of food) as appropriate to consume at once, irrelevant of its size
  • Closely related is the‘segmentation bias’-people eat less when food is divided into smaller units. Eating a number of smaller units rather than eating one larger unit is perceived by consumers as more impulsive and less appropriate.
  • The ‘previous experience/expectation’ mechanism- Previous experiences may steer portion-size selection. For example, previous experience of the ‘degree of fullness produced by a food’ impacts on the portion size selected and consumed at a later point in time
  • The ‘visual cue’ mechanism- The portion-size effect might be partly explained by visual cues, for example, dishware size. For example, the degree of ‘plate emptiness’ may activate meal termination. The Delboeuf illusion is frequently mentioned in the literature to explain how similar portion sizes of food appear larger served on a small plate than on a large plate, and this steers individuals to judge portions differently
  • The ‘bite-size’ mechanism- Similarly to the use of laundry powder, toothpaste or spaghetti—where people pour out or use more when the package size is larger —it has been found that people increase their bite size when food portions are larger

Consumers no longer know what a ‘normal’ portion is. This is partly because of a norm switch related to portion sizes, more specifically, large portions have become the standard. Especially meals eaten in an out-of-home environment are much larger than recommended, contributing to a “portion size norm switch” further affecting home cooked meals. Larger portions result in higher energy intake.

3. Marketing

New agricultural policies, together with the introduction of processed, shelf-ready products resulted in cheaper and easier to get food compared to 40 years ago. If you combine this with a society that is always looking to get a bang for their buck, you end up with price wars over who can give you the most quantity for the least amount of money. Price marketing strategies used to tempt consumers to buy larger quantities and more products include discount packs and promotions such as 2 for the price of 1. Consumers are more likely to choose a package that seems to benefit them the most, even if they did not plan the purchase.

How we try to change the obesogenic environment at GREENDISH?

1. Attempting to change today’s food portion norms

As already mentioned, food portions have steadily risen in the last century and have become too big for a recommended food intake of a healthy individual. Greendish is informing and training chefs into becoming more reasonable when it comes to the amount of food they put on the plates. While also helping the consumers in becoming more healthy, we are helping food providers saving money by reducing food waste. As a result, we are also reducing the carbon footprint of modern dishes.

2. Optimizing menus and dishes

While optimizing menus results in a more sustainable menu choice, it also results in a more healthy menu choice. By reducing the amount of animal-based protein and\or increasing plant-based protein, we make sure the sustainable choice is at the same time the healthier choice. Meta-analyses that compared people who eat animal versus plant proteins consistently find that, even after adjusting for other influential factors like socioeconomic class, weight, and exercise habits, those who eat more plant-based protein tend to live longer, healthier lives. They tend to have less cardiovascular disease and fewer cancer cases, though especially the cancer association tends to drop away once other factors have been controlled for.

3. Gently nudging consumers

Food Choice Engineering subconsciously guides guests towards the desired food selection. We believe in the power of offering attractive alternatives to encourage guests to make healthier food choices. This is accomplished by applying the latest research in behavioral psychology and cutting-edge marketing and communication strategies. As a result, we support consumers in making a better choice, without consciously asking them to do so.

While others are busy trying to find who is the culprit and how can they avoid being blamed for today’s’ obesity rates, we at Greendish are more focused on what can we do to support the change. It is a fact that we live in an environment that does not support healthy choices, and whether we want to call it obesigenic or not, it still does not change the vast consequences this environment has on all of us. What gives hope to this otherwise hopeless situation is that individuals are increasingly asking for change. Likewise,  we should all be part and support the change in present food habits. Greendish has already proved itself as a bridge helping leverage sustainability to increase health and business profitability. With our research, we have proven again and again that by introducing small changes on plates,  big changes occur, not only on our food-print but also on our calorie intake and overall health, while in the same time retaining guest satisfaction levels and saving money. We challenge you to give us one reason why all food service providers should not follow our simple and effective business practice!

Curious about our methods? View our website or approach us personally. We are always open for a free introductory meeting.