Obesogenic environments as major determinants of a disease: It is time to re‐shape our cities

Obesogenic environments as major determinants of a disease: It is time to re‐shape our cities

Obesity is a multifactoral chronic disease, and the environments where we live work and play have a role in influencing our health. We are pleased to share a new publication and interview with one of the authors of this commentary.

Great to connect with you again and thanks for joining me for this interview, Giovanna.

It is my pleasure, Sheree! First, let me thank my co-authors for the brainstorming that led to this interesting manuscript.

Obesity rates have tripled since the mid 1970’s. To provide some context to your article for our colleagues, can you share what do you believe to be the most significant environmental factors contributing to this rise?

The rise in obesity rates since the mid-1970s can be attributed to shifts in dietary patterns, increased sedentary lifestyles, and the prevalence of highly processed foods. Additionally, the built environment, including urban design and transportation systems, plays a pivotal role in shaping physical activity and lifestyle choices.

We see projects and initiatives everywhere focused on primary prevention of obesity. Why do you think these efforts around primary prevention of obesity at the population level have not had the desired impact?

Despite widespread efforts in primary prevention, the impact on obesity rates has not been as desired. This may be due to the intricate interplay of factors, including socioeconomic disparities and the multifaceted nature of obesity. A more comprehensive, multi-pronged approach addressing both individual behaviors and environmental influences is likely needed.

Your paper discusses at some length the impact of urban environments on obesity prevalence. Could you elaborate on how urban planning and design can be more effectively used to combat obesity?

Urban planning and design are critical factors influencing obesity rates. Well-designed, walkable neighborhoods with access to green spaces can encourage physical activity and community engagement. Effective policies promoting active transportation, such as cycling and walking infrastructure, are integral for combating obesity at the population level.

How significant is the presence of green spaces and walkable neighborhoods in addressing obesity, based on your findings? Is there evidence around this?

Research consistently indicates that green spaces and walkable neighborhoods positively impact obesity rates. These environments encourage outdoor activities, reduce stress, and contribute to overall well-being. Designing urban areas to incorporate these features is a vital strategy for fostering healthier communities.

Active transport is a key issue in public health. Can you explain the relationship between transportation systems and obesity? Is there substantial evidence on this issue?

Transportation systems significantly influence obesity through their impact on physical activity. Cities with robust public transportation and infrastructure supporting active transport modes tend to have lower obesity rates. Encouraging active commuting and enhancing accessibility to public transport can contribute to effective obesity prevention.

What are your thoughts on the role of fast-food availability and restaurant practices in contributing to obesity, and what policy changes would you recommend in this sector? Would these policy changes have an impact on the population level? On the individual level?

The availability and marketing of fast food contribute to unhealthy dietary patterns. Policy changes, including stricter regulations on food advertising and improved nutritional labeling, are recommended. Promoting healthier menu options and sustainable restaurant practices can have positive effects on both population and individual levels.

Your paper suggests meal timing can influence obesity. Can you elaborate on this with suggestions around how individuals and societies can adapt their eating patterns for better health outcomes?

Meal timing has emerged as a factor influencing obesity, impacting both individual and societal health outcomes. Irregular eating patterns, late-night meals, and inconsistent meal timings can disrupt circadian rhythms and metabolic processes.

For individuals:

  • Regular eating patterns: Encouraging individuals to maintain consistent meal timings throughout the day helps regulate metabolism and energy balance. This includes having breakfast, lunch, and dinner at roughly the same time each day.
  • Avoiding late-night meals: Consuming meals late at night may lead to poorer metabolic outcomes. Encouraging individuals to have their last meal earlier in the evening can positively influence weight management and overall health.

For societal changes:

  • Promoting healthier work hours: In many societies, work hours can disrupt traditional meal timings. Advocating for more flexible work schedules or breaks for meals can support individuals in maintaining healthier eating patterns.
  • Educational initiatives: Public health campaigns and educational programs can raise awareness about the importance of meal timing. Providing information on the benefits of regular eating patterns and the potential risks associated with irregular meal timings can empower individuals to make healthier choices.
  • Cultural practices: Recognizing and respecting cultural practices around meal timing is crucial. Tailoring interventions to align with cultural norms can enhance their effectiveness and acceptance within diverse populations.

In summary, optimizing meal timing involves both individual choices and broader societal changes. Encouraging consistent, regular eating patterns and addressing environmental factors that contribute to irregular meal timings can contribute to improved metabolic health and may play a role in obesity prevention at both the individual and population levels.

There has been a lot of press recently about the global shift towards ultra-processed foods (UPF). How does this shift contribute to the obesity and what strategies might governments use individuals and governments use to address this?

The global shift towards UPF is linked to increased obesity rates due to their low nutritional quality and high caloric content. Governments can address this by implementing policies such as stricter food labeling regulations, promoting whole food consumption, and incentivizing the food industry to produce healthier options.

The discussion of Artificial Light at Night was fascinating! Could you discuss the impact of ALAN on obesity and measures which can be taken to mitigate its effects?

Exposure to ALAN disrupts circadian rhythms, impacting sleep patterns and metabolic health. Mitigation measures include promoting better sleep hygiene, minimizing excessive light exposure during nighttime, and incorporating urban planning strategies to reduce light pollution.

Finally, Giovanna, what intersectoral strategies do you and your co-authors recommend for addressing the obesity epidemic, considering the roles of local governments, neighborhoods, transport, and food sectors?

Effectively tackling the obesity epidemic requires collaborative efforts across multiple sectors, recognizing the interconnectedness of factors influencing health. Intersectoral strategies involve coordination and action from various entities, including local governments, neighborhoods, transport, and the food sectors. Intersectoral collaboration is crucial. Local governments can implement urban planning policies that promote physical activity. The transport sector can prioritize active transportation. The food sector can adopt healthier practices. Community engagement and education are vital components. A holistic, collaborative approach is essential to address the multifaceted nature of the obesity epidemic.

The full article is available here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/dmrr.3748

PDF version is available here.