Obesity and the Social Environment

Food table patchwork cloth

In the field of sociology, the social environment pretty much includes everything that isn’t nature. In the field of psychology, here is one definition:

Social environment of an individual is the culture that he or she was educated and/or lives in, and the people and institutions with whom the person interacts…. A given social environment is likely to create [a] feeling of solidarity among its members, who are more likely to keep together, trust and help one another and think in similar ways.

For most people, the general social environment is subdivided into several compartments, which may include home, school, work, church, and so on. Some say the social environment is only made up of one’s peers; others say it’s everyone a person ever meets. As Childhood Obesity News has noted, the social environment is also said to include everything created and made by humans, from interstate highways to cupcakes with squiggles on top, which also fit into the definition of the built environment.

Yes, it is confusing, especially the difficult task of discovering where seemingly inextinguishable appetitive traits come from. No matter how good a person’s weight-control program might be, and no matter how much success she or he might have for six months or a year, the sad truth is that appetitive traits will spring up again and again. For many people, long-term weight control is like the unicorn, an elusive creature often heard of but never seen. “I lost 150 pounds and gained back 100” is a story too often told.

The plot thickens

Why? Because we have appetitive traits that just don’t want to quit. But why? Because we live in the natural world, and also in the built environment, and also in the social environment. The famous “Marshmallow Experiment” has inspired much thought. Prof. Richard Aslin, of the University of Rochester, said, “This study is an example of both nature and nurture playing a role.”

The roots are so difficult to sort out because the environment exerts an influence on the development of appetitive traits, one of which is over-response to environmental influences. Many important relationships are uncharted because previous studies were not designed to track them. For instance, most studies that might have been useful started too late in childhood for researchers to adequately trace causal relationships.

The inadequacy of previous studies is a favorite topic among researchers in this field. Dr. Mia A. Papas of the University of Maryland School of Medicine led a team that created a meta-study, obtaining data from several fairly comparable studies. The shortcomings:

Several methodological issues were of concern, including the inconsistency of measurements of the built environment across studies, the cross-sectional design of most investigations, and the focus on aspects of either diet or physical activity but not both…. Only one of the 20 studies examined differences in the built environment-obesity association by race/ethnicity.

Since in many cases the built environment is so intractable, this exerts more pressure on the social environment to be the factor that adapts and changes. Immediately a problem arises. The social environment is made up of people, and if there is one thing they don’t like, that thing is change. Luckily, and appearing in the next post, experts have the job of figuring out how to change the social environment.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Social Environments,” Wikia.com, undated
Source: “The Built Environment and Obesity,” OxfordJournals.org, 05/28/07
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