Is the Environment Conspiring Against Us to Make Us Fat?

Research and innovation

Michelle Morris is a University Academic Fellow in the School of Medicine, based at Leeds Institute for Data Analytics. Her primary research interests are spatial and social variations in diet, lifestyle and health and how new and emerging data sources in these areas can best be utilised to benefit patient health outcomes. Michelle is an interdisciplinary researcher with a background spanning, spatial analysis and policy, nutritional epidemiology and health economics. Michelle leads the ESRC Strategic Network for Obesity and works closely with the Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC). You can read more about the CDRC on our blog. The below blog post first appeared on the Centre for Spatial Analysis and Policy blog.

Photograph of an oven pizza being cut

Overweight and Obesity are a huge problem worldwide. The cost to the UK NHS is £5.1 billion annually with £11.5 billion annual cost to wider society. This does not account for the significantly reduced health related quality of life for overweight or obese individuals.  Overweight and obesity are also closely associated with type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers, which place further burden on individuals and society. It is a serious situation and one which is not going away quickly.

So what causes overweight and obesity? In the simplest terms they are a result of eating too much and not moving enough. However, in the real world of everyday life it is a much more complex and multifaceted relationship. Sometimes it feels like our environment conspires against any best laid plans to improve diet and increase physical activity, thus reducing or preventing incidence of overweight and obesity. Imagine these scenarios:

  1. You forget to take your lunch to work, the local café or corner shop often lack healthy options. Fish and chips are on offer again and you know that will keep you full all afternoon.
  2. You end up working late and miss the circuit training class you had planned to attend at the gym. You are so hungry and tired that you decide to pick up a take away from the pizza shop you pass on your way home.
  3. You think that cycling to work would be nice and a good way to build activity into your day – but wait, it is often raining, the roads are really busy and you are not confident with crossing that big intersection where there is no bike lane. You could cycle on the canal tow path, but it is dark and there have been a number of attacks there and you don’t feel safe.
  4. Your office is on the 5th floor. That is 100 vertical steps. It would only take a few minutes each day and contribute to increased levels of physical activity. However, the lift is just there, I might have to wait, but I’m tired and I really can’t be bothered with the stairs.

I think most of us can relate to all of these scenarios. Ultimately as an individual we make the choices but often we may feel like there are a number of other people, situations or organisations at fault. This is why to better understand and ultimately tackle overweight and obesity many different types of organisations need to come together. In an era of growing volumes of data on all aspects of human behaviours it is timely to bring big data analytics into the forefront of obesity research.

It is exactly this that the ESRC Strategic Network for Obesity is trying to achieve. This international network brings together experts from many disciplines within and beyond academia to explore how we can use data about us and our environment to table overweight and obesity. How can we improve the environment so that it is easier to be physically active and eat well than it is to jump in the car and nip to a take-away? Hopefully we can find answers to this question through our network meetings and related activity.

The network will host four meetings over 12 months. The first meeting was in Leeds in November, with the second taking place in Cambridge [earlier this year].  If you missed the meetings you can catch up on activity by reading our storify or watching the seminars.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.