Bioethics Blogs

Guest Post: The food environment, obesity, and primary targets of intervention

Written By Johanna Ahola-Launonen

University of Helsinki

Chronic diseases, their origins, and issues of responsibility are a prevalent topic in current health care ethics and public discussion; and obesity is among one of the most discussed themes. Usually the public discussion has a tendency to assume that when information about health lifestyle choices exist, the individual should be able to make those choices. However, studies increasingly pay attention to the concept of food environment[1] and its huge influence. If obesity really is that serious an issue to public health, health care costs, and economy as many suggest, focus should be directed to the alteration of food environment instead of having the individual as the primary target of intervention.  

Traditionally, the main target of intervention in prevention measures for obesity have been, in all countries, directed to the individual[2]. Public health professionals give information about healthy food, citizens are encouraged to change their lifestyle, and the media is full of advice for losing weight. However, the measures directed to individuals have had little effectivity. In some countries, the “pandemic of obesity” have stopped, but nowhere has there been a clear decrease in obesity levels.

Studies suggest that changes in the food environment explain most of the population’s obesity. The food environment has undergone a considerable change over the past 30 to 40 years when consumption has become easier along increasing availability, variation and low costs. High-energy density food tends to be among the cheapest alternatives, and large packages decrease the unit price. Eating has become extremely easy; snacks are sold almost everywhere, microwave meals are fast, and restaurants are on every corner.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.