Too much food and too little sidewalk? Problematizing the obesogenic environment thesis
The obesogenic environment thesis is that increased prevalence of obesity is because people are surrounded by cheap, fast, nutritionally inferior food and a built environment that discourages physical activity. This thesis has animated various planning, advocacy, and educational interventions to address these obesogenic qualities. However, studies designed to test the thesis have generated inconclusive or marginal results, and the more robust findings may be based on spurious correlations. Part of the problem is methodological: researchers embed many assumptions in their models and derive causality from unexamined correlation. As such, they neglect the possibility that features of the built environment may be as much an effect of sociospatial patterning as a cause. In addition, in embedding taken-for-granted assumptions about the causes of obesity—namely, the energy-balance model—these studies foreclose alternative explanations, including the possible role of environmental toxins. This approach to studying the obesogenic environment is a textbook example of problem closure, in which a specific definition of a problem and socially acceptable solutions are used to frame the study of the problem’s causes and consequences. Keywords: energy balance, food deserts, obesogenic environments, obesity
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