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Obesity is Closer to Home (Literally)

Updated: Mar 30

Although obesity is widely attributed to personal lifestyle factors, such as diet and exercise, environments and neighborhoods have a crucial effect on the prevalence of obesity throughout the United States since "obesity risk is not randomly distributed across the population; certain groups are more likely to be obese than others."


Neighborhoods influence the types of foods readily available and the typical eating and exercise habits of the local consumers. The main issues dependent on the environment that directly correlate to obesity include the availability of healthy food options, the local population’s average socioeconomic status, the overall physical environment and the conditions of the "built environment." 


To address the dramatic increase in obesity in recent years,  the correlation and possible causation between neighborhood elements and obesity have biological plausibility given that neighborhood determinants such as environmental exposures have a direct linkage to obesity. For instance, exposure to some chemicals through processed food ingestion disrupts the body’s lipid metabolism and can lead to an increase in BMI.


Neighborhoods should be considered a fundamental cause of obesity because they affect access to resources like supermarkets that can allow people to avoid major weight gain that can lead to obesity, and they have an interrelationship with major identified risk factors such as household income. Most importantly, in what way and how significantly do neighborhood elements affect the risk of childhood obesity, and do any of the factors have more impact than others? 


Instead of focusing on personal fitness and everyday eating habits, a broad scope should be applied when looking at social components of obesity to identify and later apply to address the growing prevalence of obesity throughout the United States. According to Jennifer Black and James Macinko, obesity research that focuses on individual causes of obesity like daily nutrition fails to address and help curb obesity trends at a populational level and should rather focus on local food accessibility.


Furthermore, based on evaluations of numerous census tracts compared in the study, “social disadvantage in a child’s broader environment, not just a child’s household, may confer risk of obesity.” Another factor to consider includes the relationship between the concentration of vegetation that surrounds childhood residences and the location of the residence in relation to types of food markets. As reported by Liu et. al., “after controlling for individual socio-demographics and neighborhood socioeconomic status, measures or vegetation and food retail significantly predicted overweight in children.”


Despite major efforts to decrease the risk of obesity by promoting regular activity and healthy eating, neighborhood factors are what needs attention, as they have a more direct correlation to high obesity rates. 


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.


Sources


Lopez, R. P. (2007). Neighborhood risk factors of obesity. Obesity, 15(8), 2111-2119.

Black, J. L., & Macinko, J. (2008). Neighborhoods and obesity. Nutrition Reviews, 66(1), 2-20.

Greves Grow, M. H., Cook, A. J., Arterburn, D. E., Saelens, B. E., Drewnowski, A., & Lozano, P. (2010). Child obesity associated with social disadvantage of children's neighborhoods. Social Science and Medicine, 71(3), 584-591.

Liu, G. C., Wilson, J. S., Qi, R., & Ying, J. (2007). Green neighborhoods, food retail and childhood overweight: Differences by population density. American Journal of Health Promotion, 4(21), 317-325.

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