An Obesogenic Environment: Debunking the Myths Surrounding Obesity

Deborah Cohen, author of the recently-published A Big Fat Crisis: The Hidden Forces Behind the Obesity Epidemic and How We Can End It, is a senior natural scientist at the Rand Corporation.

a big fat crisis

Dr. Cohen wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post shortly after her book’s publication, detailing five common myths she wished to debunk, summarized here:

1. Your genes are to blame for your obesity.

Obesity doubled between 1980 and 2000, much too fast for genetic factors to be responsible. We eat more because we can. Food – particularly junk food – has never been cheaper. Americans spent 9.8% of their income on food in 2011, compared to nearly 25% before WW2.  We eat out more, spending 49% of our food budget on food away from home, compared with 31% in 1966; and restaurant meals usually have more calories.

Says Cohen:

Meanwhile, the food industry has developed tens of thousands of products with more calories per bite, as well as new, effective marketing strategies to encourage us to buy and consume more than necessary. We should blame these business practices, which are modifiable, for obesity rather than our genes, which are not.

2. The obese lack self-control.

Busy lives lead to poor dietary choices. Self-control tends to be no match for our continuous saturation with carefully crafted marketing images and messages encouraging us to indulge, reward ourselves, and in general eat more than we require of often the least healthy kinds of foods.

3. The obesity epidemic is caused by a lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Only 5% of Americans live in food deserts, while 65% of the population is overweight or obese. 30% of grocery store purchases are from the end of the aisles and a result of impulse marketing strategies that having nothing to do with promoting healthy eating. Half of all hardware stores sell food now – generally not the healthy stuff – as do 41% of all retail stores.

4. The problem is we are too sedentary, not we eat too much.

While the obesity rate doubled between 1980 and 2000, there was no significant decrease in physical activity in the U.S. population, according to the CDC. People are, however, taking in over 500 calories per day more than in the late 1970s.

5. Better education about diet and nutrition can defeat the obesity epidemic.

According to separate studies, 44% of male doctors are overweight, as are 55% of nurses. How does nutrition education alone make a difference if people who provide health care cannot control their weight? How can education alone compete with increasingly sophisticated marketing techniques?


The author recommends far greater government intervention in our food system to promote good health, and suggests extensive regulation of corporate food marketing strategies, ideas which are sure to raise the hackles of those who fear the Nanny State.

In a Washington Post book review, science writer Mathew Hutson states,

Her thesis is clear: Just as infectious disease and cancer result from exposure to a pathogenic and carcinogenic environment, “obesity is primarily the result of exposure to an obesogenic environment.”


A review from a writer we respect and admire, Marion Nestle:


“Deborah Cohen gives us a physician’s view of how to deal with today’sBig Fat Crisis. In today’s ‘eat more’ food environment, individuals can’t avoid overweight on their own. This extraordinarily well researched book presents a convincing argument for the need to change the food environment to make it easier for every citizen to eat more healthfully.”

— Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, New York University, and author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health

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