The local supermarket, or rather supermarkets (I can count three that are five minutes from my house), could be making us fat: New research in Scientific Reports suggests that it may not be genetics or our individual lifestyle choices that are behind the obesity epidemic but what City College of New York physicist Hernán Makse calls the “growth of the supermarket economy,”
Much research about obesity has focused on individual factors, such as a person’s genetics or his or her lifestyle choices. Makse and his colleagues instead looked at patterns of food marketing and distribution, to consider how social pressures and collective behavior play a role in people’s eating habits and other behaviors and affect obesity rates.
That is, to what extent is the presence of so many fast food outlets — plus supermarkets stuffed with (it seems) every possible commodity, 24-hour convenience stores, etc. — a factor in the obesity epidemic?
Study About Collective Behavior and Obesity
Drawing on data from by the US Centers for Disease Control Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance Systems for 2004 through 2008, the researchers found that Greene County, Alabama, was the epicenter of the obesity epidemic in that period. They noted two “obesity clusters” of high rates of obesity, each about 1,000 kilometers from the central point, one along the Appalachian Mountains and a second in the lower Mississippi River valley: Neighboring areas, they noted, are likely to have similar percentages of their population who are obese. (A color-coded map charting rising obesity rates in the US is certainly eye-opening.)
From examining the concentration of industries associated with food production and sales (supermarkets, food and beverage stores, restaurants and bars), the researchers found that “areas with above-average concentrations of food-related businesses had high-than-normal prevalence of obesity and diabetes.” If only genetics were the reason for the rise in obesity rates — for the obesity epidemic — they would not have seen the correlations, says Makse.
If Makse’s and his colleagues’ findings are borne out, they provide evidence for the sorts of policies such as New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban on large-size sodas, regulations about marketing fast food to children and laws imposing taxes on foods with fat and sugar. Criticism of such bans often takes the form of “it’s up to people to make their own choices” and evokes fears of the “nanny state.”
But consider how just a few decades ago the average size of a soda was a mere percentage of the giant “big gulp” people expect now. Portion sizes for restaurant meals in the US have grown prodigiously. In addressing the obesity epidemic, do we need to look not only at people’s individual choices, but at cultural and societal factors that influence the behavior of an entire community, whether we know it or not?
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