Given the importance of the environment on obesity, many researchers, including Brownell, argue that we need new laws and social policies to combat obesity. Brownell’s controversial proposals suggest, for example, regulating food advertising aimed at children, prohibiting fast foods and soft drinks in schools, and subsidizing healthy foods.
Taxation is another potentially effective means of reducing consumption of harmful products, as the tobacco tax has demonstrated. Brownell and Thomas Frieden, who now heads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have argued for a tax on one of the biggest contributors to obesity: sugar-sweetened beverages. Recently the U.S. Senate Finance Committee recommended such a tax to help combat obesity. Although major soft drink corporations vehemently oppose such a tax, the proposal is now on the national agenda.
Cornell University researcher Brian Wansink and his colleagues have found that cues in our personal eating environment also exert pressure on our tendencies to overeat. Based on these findings, they have suggested various ways of altering our environment to influence us to eat less. They advise, for instance, reducing portion sizes, keeping tempting food out of sight, never eating directly out of a package, and asking waiters to remove the chips or bread from the table.
Analyzing the power of environmental influences on obesity can lead to many practical suggestions for lessening their detrimental effects and encouraging lifelong healthy eating. And because obesity is a serious problem that has managed to spread to many corners of the globe, we must explore every possible avenue to reduce its prevalence.
Studies show that our surroundings greatly influence how much and what we eat. In his book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (Bantam Dell, 2007), Brian Wansink, professor of consumer behavior and nutritional science at Cornell University, describes the environmental stimuli that numerous investigations have tied to overeating. Here are some of them:
- The larger the amount of food on a plate, the more we eat.
- The bigger the food container, the more we eat.
- When the food we prepare comes in large packages, we prepare and eat more than if the food comes in smaller packages.
- We eat more when the food is visible and conveniently located.
- We eat more when the food has an appealing name (such as Succulent Italian Seafood Filet) than when the same food has an ordinary name (such as Seafood Filet).
- Schoolchildren who live close to fast food outlets have a 5 percent higher obesity rate than do students who attend schools farther away from such stores.
- People who move from less modernized countries to more modernized ones show increased rates of obesity as compared with individuals who stay in their less modernized country.
Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Environment and Weight."