The Toxic Food Environment

Harvard Dining Hall

What happens when The Huffington Post gets together with Harvard to examine the toxic food environment? To see the video discussion, this page is the place. The basic rationale for the conversation goes like this:

Historically, conventional wisdom has suggested that obesity is the result of personal choice, a failure of willpower, a disease of ignorance. What a low opinion to have of so much of our own community.

New research presents a different view: A confluence of genetic predisposition and environmental influence conspire to make unhealthful foods — sugary, salty, fat-filled snacks — appealing, desirable and even potentially addictive.

Additionally, Harvard’s website offers a long essay, replete with 79 footnotes, that covers the bases regarding the current views held by its School of Public Health. It begins with an overview of how the surroundings in which we find ourselves, or place ourselves, influence our diets. It explains why the word “toxic” is used — because the current food environment “corrodes healthy lifestyles and promotes obesity.” As if “toxic” were not bad enough, the Harvard report unabashedly calls our world “obesogenic.”

The immediate world of most people can be divided into four realms: family, worksite, school, and neighborhood, and the role of each one in causing obesity is scrutinized. There is very little for Harvard to say about family influence that has not already been said. The excellent point is made that economic status plays a role:

It takes longer to prepare healthful meals than to buy convenience foods or fast food. But people in lower-income households, often single parents working full time and taking care of children, may have less time for meal preparation and other household chores.

Workplaces can be anything from horrible to helpful, and the variation among schools is just as drastic. In order to not overly offend food manufacturers, schools don’t call items in vending machines junk food, but use the euphemistic term “competitive foods.” The information includes a couple of odd facts, such as:

Researchers have found that participating in the School Breakfast Program is associated with lower BMI in children, while participating in the lunch program did not affect obesity.

The neighborhood food environment is a tough one, because most people are not in a financial position to pick up and move at will, however much they might prefer living in a more congenial place. Lack of transportation, too many fast-food joints and convenience stores, not enough places to get fresh food (the “food desert” problem) — the list goes on.

Returning to the Web seminar’s introductory material, it is heartening that Harvard experts refer to the danger of addictive foods in such a casual way, indicating that the idea of food addiction has become accepted and recognized.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Why Do We Overeat? Harvard Researchers Address Obesity And The Toxic Food Environment,” The Huffington Post, 09/13/13
Source: “Toxic Food Environment,”
Image by NKC Photo.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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