The Obesity Epidemic: Part One

The causes of obesity are complex. I’m often asked to explain, so in this first of a series of periodic posts I’ve tried to give an overview of some of the causes of, and the origins of, the term Obesity Epidemic.

Obesity + epidemic

It was the World Health Organization (WHO) who first used the now-familiar term “Obesity Epidemic” in 1997 to describe what they called a ‘surge in weight’.

They used the word ‘epidemic’ due to the rapid increase in numbers affected by obesity, although prior to this epidemics were considered to be diseases caused by microbes which spread – rapidly. (Of course, we know know that an epidemic can turn into a pandemic…)

However, the word ‘epidemic’ was not then used, as today, to describe a contagion.

And although not microbe-related, the speed of the increase in obesity from the 1980’s led to the phrase we are now all too familiar with: Obesity Epidemic.

Obese – overnight

When did the numbers jump enough to be called an ‘epidemic’?

The biggest jump in the numbers literally occurred overnight in 2010.

BMI, the Body Mass Index (which is itself open to much criticism as a reliable tool for measuring ‘healthy’ weight) had been ‘tweaked’. The US government reclassified the BMI criteria for obesity – by lowering the numbers.

What is BMI?

Obesity in adults is (now) defined using a person’s body mass index, the ratio between weight and height. A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is classified as a healthy weight, 25 to 29.9 considered overweight and 30+ obese. Cut-offs are lower among children and adolescents and vary based on age.


An extra 36 million Americans woke up (categorized as) obese.

Loss of Willpower?

Fact: In the 1970s, less than 3% of adults in England were obese, compared with 25% now.  

Researchers give a number of explanations for the surge in numbers of those characterised as obese.

One reason is not a collective loss of willpower!

Explanations include:

Change of dietary guidelines

Many researchers trace our collective weight gain to the late 1970s when official government dietary guidelines were changed. Dietary fat became the enemy and carbohydrates our friend. Is it a coincidence or is the connection more straightforward? The argument is on-going, and I aim to cover this in a future post.

The ‘Thrifty Gene’

Coincidently, it was also during the 1970’s that biologists increasingly claimed that genetically our bodies are biologically wired to look for food, calling this the ‘Thrifty Gene”.

Being genetically programmed to overeat, they argued, provides good protection in times of food shortages and famines. Ironically, it is this very efficiency which helps make repeated dieting one of the most effective ways to gain weight.

Although body genetics aren’t universal, scientists suspect that so-called ‘yo-yo’ dieting has an adverse metabolic effect on our ability to lose weight and keep that weight off.

“I’m starving…”

Are you, really? Your body thinks so. (See above).

So it actually slows down to preserve calories, therefore making it harder to lose weight, and leading to, for many people, an increase in weight once the diet ends.

This has been well documented, especially with reference to the show The Biggest Loser. (The producer, JD Roth, in his book The Big Fat Truth, himself admits that the causes of weight gain are complex and most contestants have gained their weight back, plus.)

Fact: Media reporting of the obesity epidemic has helped intensify disordered eating and yo-yo dieting and is blamed for a rise in weight stigma and fat shaming which can contribute to weight gain.

Is it all in your genes?

Certainly you can blame your genes (somewhat)….

One of the most exciting discoveries in the context of the obesity epidemic is the discovery that our genes are affected by our physical as well as social environment. (Read my review of Dr. Giles Yeo’s book, Gene Eating for more on this fascinating subject.)

Another cause of the increase in obesity is our physical environment, so conducive to weight gain a new term was coined to describe it: obesogenic.

Role of the environment on obesity

The influence of the environment on our weight is reflected in the United Health Foundation’s 28th Annual Report of America’s Health Rankings. The longest-running annual assessment of the Nation’s health on a State-by-State basis, the report lists the “healthiest” cities to live in as well as the opposite.

Surely not everyone who is “motivated,” and has more ‘will power’ just happens to live in these areas? 

In the UK, it is well documented that where you live influences your food choices, while your physical environment may or may not trigger healthier lifestyle choices. When the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) ranked High Streets the winners and losers were separated –  not by strength of character – but by location and income.

No surprise.

An ‘obesogenic’ environment

Our environment today can accurately be described by the term obesogenic, especially when we look back 30 years.

Eating out (even for fast food) was usually seen as a weekly ‘treat’, certainly not a common event. Today, British families eat out at least twice as much as they did in the 1970s, with at least one in five meals now eaten outside the home.  (Note: Time will tell in these coronavirus days…)

Food can be purchased literally everywhere – petrol stations, newsagents, and, in Bayswater, at a dry cleaners.  High Streets are dominated by high calorie fast food shops and coffee chains with their supersized muffins and cakes.

Professor Paul Gately of Leeds Metropolitan University argues, “the scale of the temptation is far greater today…studies show that the number of takeaways in an area has an impact on obesity.”

It’s no coincidence how many fast food outlets are within easy reach of schools, with their hungry pupils: yet another reason for the rise in childhood obesity.

Fresh or Fast (Food)?

It is not just a matter of willpower, or putting the onus solely on individual responsibility. (Which government and the food industry prefer to assert).

How can we really expect change if you live in an area where most food options are fast food, any supermarkets have limited (and expensive) fresh produce, play areas scarce?

I ask, where are the planners and policy makers? Why is it always ‘our’ fault?

We know that childhood obesity is rising.  Today, children consume literally twice as many calories outside the home. Food advertisements aimed at children have become clever and deceptive.

Is it a suprise that most processed foods are cheaper and more calorie dense, with lower income people – always vulnerable – targeted?

Do you think it is a coincidence that economically challenged locations increase food chain profits, with data showing rising obesity levels in these targeted areas?

Food for thought…

What happens when 10% percent of families don’t have a table to eat on?

What happens when fewer than 70% of people eat less than three times a week as a family at the table?

To be continued….

(For a full list of sources used in this post please contact me! )

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