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Heavy habits

Don't blame yourself for that extra weight, a new theory says. Blame your environment. Cues to eat are all around -- and we're only human.

January 14, 2008|Shari Roan | Times Staff Writer

Here's an interesting thought: What if you're not to blame for your weight problem?

What if the fault could be laid squarely at the feet of food manufacturers and marketers, grocery store managers, restaurant operators, food vendors -- the people who make food so visible, available and mouth-watering?

Several recent studies, papers and a popular weight-loss book argue that eating is an automatic behavior triggered by environmental cues that most people are unaware of -- or simply can't ignore. Think of the buttery smell of movie theater popcorn, the sight of glazed doughnuts glistening in the office conference room or the simple habit of picking up a whipped-cream-laden latte on the way to work.

Accepting this "don't blame me" notion may not only ease the guilt and self-loathing that often accompanies obesity, say the researchers behind the theory, but also help people achieve a healthier weight.

To make Americans eat less and eat more healthily, they contend, the environment itself needs to be changed -- with laws regulating portion size, labeling or the places where food can be sold or eaten. That would be much easier, the researchers add, than overcoming human nature. The theory that our society -- not us -- is to blame for our overall expanding waist size is garnering support from health and nutrition experts. To recap the dismal statistics: In the last 25 years, the number of obese Americans has increased from 14.5% to 32.2%. Two out of three adults are overweight, as are 19% of children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Almost everybody is gaining weight in almost all socioeconomic groups. It's not limited to certain people. It's everywhere," says Dr. Deborah A. Cohen, a senior natural scientist at Rand Corp. and the author of a recent paper on the environmental theory of obesity. "Look at doctors, nurses and dietitians who are overweight or obese. If it has anything to do with how much we know about nutrition or how much we're motivated, we would never see people with such expertise be overweight or obese."

But defining obesity as an environmental issue is a little like comparing it to global warming: The problem is all around us -- part of us -- but we, as individuals, can do little about it. Big actions by governments and societies will be needed for much to change, according to some researchers who study obesity.

Other health experts say that view is too extreme. Individuals can exert control over their own environment and lose or maintain weight despite the temptation of venti lattes, super-sized French fries and all-you-can-eat pasta bowls, they say.

"The environment, I think, to a large extent explains the obesity epidemic," says Dr. Robert H. Eckel, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado and past president of the American Heart Assn. "But should we change the environment to alter the obesity epidemic? And how much do we need to change it? Those are difficult questions. To blame it all on the environment is a mistake. There is individual responsibility."


Eating on autopilot

To explain how so many people have become overweight, researchers start with the urge to eat.

Eating is an automatic behavior that has little to do with choice, willpower or even hunger, Cohen says. Her paper, with co-author Thomas Farley of Tulane University's Prevention Research Center, was published online last month in Preventing Chronic Disease, the peer-reviewed health journal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cohen and Farley argue that automatic behaviors can be controlled, but only for a short time (the reason most diets ultimately fail). A more effective approach, they say, would be to decrease the accessibility, visibility and quantities of food people are exposed to, and the environmental cues that promote eating.

The fact that most people cannot maintain a weight loss is proof that nutrition knowledge and willpower don't work, they and other researchers contend.

"We've thought for a long time that if we just suggested to people that there are negative effects from obesity and if we provided reminders, they would be able to gain control over their behavior and act healthy," says Wendy Wood, a Duke University psychologist who studies habits. "There isn't much evidence that works."

Instead, ample research demonstrates that much of human behavior is automatic. Studies of people keeping activity diaries show that about 45% of daily human behavior is repetitious and unthinking. In a study published recently in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, Wood showed that people fall back on their habits -- such as buying fast food -- even when they intend to do otherwise.

Several recent studies depict the folly of human food consumption. A 2006 study in the International Journal of Obesity found that when candy was placed in a clear dish, people ate 71% more than when it was in an opaque dish. The same study found that the closer the food, the more likely it would be eaten.

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