Opinion

A New Approach to Combat America’s Obesity Epidemic

Across the country, the obesity epidemic and related health issues affect more than 66 percent of the U.S. adult population and increase direct and indirect health care costs as much as 30 percent. To combat this epidemic, health professionals are increasingly turning to insights from behavioral science to guide clients and patients — focusing not only on what people eat, but behavioral strategies for navigating today’s food-rich environment.

Developing a holistic approach to eating that accounts for the impact of the environment necessitates an interdisciplinary approach to explorations of food-related behaviors.

While people are aware that food choice plays a role in this process (e.g., a fruit salad is a better choice from a weight loss and overall health perspective than chocolate cake), what is harder to change is the obesity-promoting influences that shape our environment (e.g., cake is much more likely to show up at an office birthday celebration than fruit salad).

With this new approach, it’s no longer simply learning that the fruit salad is the better choice — it’s recognizing and accounting for the environmental factors that might drive you toward the chocolate cake. And for health professionals, it’s about learning and advocating for the transformation of a toxic environment into one that supports a healthful lifestyle.

Though identifying the environmental factors that drive us to eat more seems straightforward enough, the number of cues identified by researchers that impact consumption is staggering — venue atmospherics, such as lighting, music and temperature; the presence of others, as well as the body size of those eating confederates; the name of the product; and the list goes on and on.

Some of these individuals might be very aware of, such as the tendency to overconsume on a holiday like Thanksgiving. But what about the number of cookies pictured on the package that you just bought? Or eating from a relatively large versus small plate? Many factors have been associated with increased consumption, though consumers are not likely aware of the effect of these and other subtle cues.

This body of research underscores the fact that maintaining or losing weight is not just about diet — it’s about the behaviors surrounding eating.

Movement in the obesity field has reflected this, as practitioners are trending away from traditional “diets” that merely restrict eating toward multi-part solutions that aim to foster a positive relationship with food and a focus on mindfulness related to eating decisions.

At Villanova, the College of Nursing’s MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education and those exploring the behavioral underpinnings of food decision making at the Villanova School of Business are assembling a collaborative, multidisciplinary symposium to help make this innovative approach actionable.

By pairing evidence-based research on mindfulness and mindful eating techniques used in health care and clinical settings with behavioral research about how the food environment impacts food choice, as well as how policy efforts might help to build a context of mindfulness and a culture that promotes food for well-being, we can take concrete steps to expanding the body of work in this area and its implementation in combating the obesity epidemic.

If we can bring those environmental factors that influence food decision making to consumer’s awareness, then we help to minimize their impact on food choice and behavior.

By implementing this interdisciplinary approach more broadly, we can bring to bear a powerful tool in the fight against obesity that can have real, tangible results to help bring down health care costs, improve quality of life and ultimately allow more people to live longer.

 

Rebecca Shenkman is the director of the Villanova University MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education. Beth Vallen is a Villanova School of Business professor in marketing and business law specializing in consumer behavior and health-related decision making.

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