Obesity is becoming more and more prevalent in today's society. People are choosing coke instead of water, chips instead of fruit and video games instead of exercise, all of which are affecting our health in a big, fat way. If someone is overweight, should they be the ones to blame for lacking will power? Are we in control of what we eat, or is it all an illusion?
On Tuesday Sept. 21, Dr. Deborah Cohen, a senior natural scientist at the RAND Corporation, who is board-certified in public health and preventative medicine, held a lecture at Santa Monica College explaining the effects of the environment on our health. The lecture, entitled, "How the Environment causes Obesity and What We Can Do About It," covered multiple ways in which we can take action to prevent obesity and the fundamental components of why so many people are obese.
Cohen started the lecture by explaining that everyone is affected by obesity. Whether you're rich or poor, young or old, obesity is a common problem that keeps growing and growing. "Everyone is being affected and what's really surprising is that even experts in weight control have problems with their weight," Cohen said, followed by an uproar of laughter throughout the room.
As funny as it may sound, this is no joke. But why are health professionals being affected? Shouldn't they be the ones who are most healthy? "We think that obesity is initially self-control or not having knowledge, but that has nothing to do with the problem," Cohen explained - eating is an automatic behavior.
According to Cohen, the main problem with obesity is our environment. Food advertisements, junk food that is relatively less expensive and large portions constantly surrounds us. Eating is an automatic behavior. If we see food, our brain is automatically triggered to want to eat. She explained that seeing convenience foods creates desire.
Dopamine, a neuron-hormone that is a powerful motivator, is automatically secreted in response to food cues. For example, an experiment was conducted to see what happens when you put a jar of candy on a secretary's desk.
An opaque jar, where the candy can't be seen, was placed on a desk. In another case a clear jar, where the candy was seen, was placed on another desk. According to Cohen, the secretaries with the clear jar ate 46 percent more as opposed to the opaque jar. This is an example of desire and convenience.
When we visit a supermarket, we don't realize that the fatty things like chips and soda usually have more shelf space, colors and variety. The selections are endless. When we walk into the fruits and vegetables section, we normally see less. According to Cohen, this is done intentionally.
Marketers pay to have their items such as soda and candy close to the cash register in order to boost sales. Doubling shelf space and making junk food more accessible increases food sales by 40 percent. According to Cohen, we pay attention to brands and packaging but we don't realize that these things influence us.
It may not be apparent, but our brain has limited capacity to think about more than one thing at a time. This is also a factor that influences what we eat. Cohen explained how an experiment was performed on a group of people to see what kind of decisions people made under a cognitive low. Half of the people were asked to memorize a 7-didgit number and the other half to memorize a 2-digit number.
While they memorized the number, they were asked to pick a snack, either a fruit salad or a chocolate cake. People who memorized the 7-digit number overwhelmingly chose the chocolate cake; people that memorized the 2-digit number were less likely to choose the chocolate cake. What happened? The people with the 7-digit number spent all of their energy with the numbers that they didn't make a wise choice.
It's obvious that food advertisement has exploded and marketers constantly try to catch our attention, this is why sometimes it's hard for us to resist. Some ways to avoid obesity can be as easy as keeping track of your calorie intake and eating snacks that are less than 200 calories.
We underestimate the influence of our environment, which is a huge problem. This is why the environment, according to Cohen is the source of health and illness. SMC student Samuel Kinney, present at the lecture said, "This lecture was great. It reinforced things that I already knew but haven't taken action about. Dr. Cohen made me open my eyes and pay closer attention to our environment."