Aug 3, 2011
Published in: International journal of obesity, v. 32, suppl. 7, Dec. 2008, p. s137-s142
Posted on RAND.org on November 30, 2008
The past 30 years have seen dramatic changes in the food and physical activity environments, both of which contribute to the changes in human behavior that could explain obesity. This paper reviews documented changes in the food environment, changes in the physical activity environment and the mechanisms through which people respond to these environments, often without conscious awareness or control. The most important environmental changes have been increases in food accessibility, food salience and decreases in the cost of food. The increases in food marketing and advertising create food cues that artificially stimulate people to feel hungry. The existence of a metabolic pathway that allows excess energy to be stored as fat suggests that people were designed to overeat. Many internal mechanisms favor neurophysiologic responses to food cues that result in overconsumption. External cues, such as food abundance, food variety and food novelty, cause people to override internal signals of satiety. Other factors, such as conditioning and priming, tie food to other desirable outcomes, and thus increase the frequency that hunger is stimulated by environmental cues. People's natural response to the environmental cues are colored by framing, and judgments are flawed and biased depending on how information is presented. People lack insight into how the food environment affects them, and subsequently are unable to change the factors that are responsible for excessive energy consumption. Understanding the causal pathway for overconsumption will be necessary to interrupt the mechanisms that lead to obesity.