The Nutrition Diva's Quick and Dirty Tips for Eating Well and Feeling Fabulous

Fighting back against an obesogenic environment

Episode Summary

Everywhere we go, we are bombarded by food marketing and encouraged to overeat. But resistance is not futile.

Episode Notes

Everywhere we go, we are bombarded by food marketing and encouraged to overeat. But resistance is not futile.

Nutrition Diva is hosted by Monica Reinagel. A transcript is available at Simplecast.

Links to the two studies mentioned in today's show:
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/obr.12265
https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2792381

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Episode Transcription

Hello and welcome to the Nutrition Diva Podcast. I’m your host Monica Reinagel.

The term “obesogenic environment” gets tossed around a lot these days, as one of the issues contributing to growing rates of overweight and obesity. It means that the environment in which we live promotes obesity. It wasn’t always this way.  In fact, the term doesn’t seem to have come into usage until around 1988. 

Today, the places in which we live, work, play, shop, and travel tend to minimize–or even actively discourage–physical activity. It’s hard to walk to the grocery store or drug store when there are no crosswalks or pedestrian signals to help you cross busy streets. It’s hard to bike to work when there are no bike lanes and nowhere to secure your bike when you get there. I know I’ve given up and taken the elevator simply because I could not locate the stairwell.

And the food side of the equation is even more extreme. 

The other day, I went to the big-box hardware store to buy a ceiling fan. Food trucks selling hot dogs, fries, tacos, and other snacks lined the parking lot. You know, in case you get too hungry walking from your car to the entrance of the store. Inside, I walked by what seemed like a quarter mile of candy, chips, and soda to get to the cashier. At the hardware store. 

On the way home, I stopped for gas and while I was waiting for my tank to fill, a television blared on and started showing ads for a local burger joint. Driving home, I noticed fast food, coffee, and pastry shops on virtually every corner–most with a convenient drive-thru that allows you to onboard 800 between-meal calories without even leaving your vehicle.

Everywhere we go, we are bombarded by food marketing, cues, and opportunities to eat and drink. There is no longer any activity or location in which eating is not completely normalized. We eat and drink in our cars, at our desks, during classes, while commuting, on the treadmill, in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. My own dentist, for Pete’s sake, has a Keurig machine–complete with hot chocolate and hot apple cider–for patients to enjoy while they are waiting to have their teeth cleaned.

And the foods we are being sold and surrounded by–in portion sizes that our grandparents would have been gobsmacked by–are literally engineered to hijack and override our rational decision-making centers.

That’s what people are talking about when they say that we live in an obesogenic environment–one that contributes to very high and rising rates of overweight and obesity.  

And recent research has found that people with overweight and obesity may be more susceptible to food cues and marketing. Their brains are actually more likely to notice and be impacted by messages promoting high-calorie foods. Whether that’s the chicken or egg is unclear. But it’s clearly a problem.

So what can we do about this? Can we rein in food marketers or sellers somehow, in the name of public health? It’s been tried, but it’s hard to curtail commerce in a free market society. 

Celebrity chef and healthy food advocate Jamie Oliver has been campaigning for restrictions on junk food sales and advertising in the U.K. But the government decided at the last minute to delay the implementation of new rules. Among other things, they fear that banning 2-for-1 offers of snack food isn’t good policy, given recent increases in the cost of living.

Let them eat cake, and all that. 

And so it may come down to individual efforts to gird ourselves against these ubiquitous food cues and strengthen our resistance to food marketing. But the good news is, this appears to be possible. 

Last week, researchers from UCSD, U Michigan, and Brown University published results of a multi-center, randomized, controlled trial involving 271 adults with overweight and obesity who received 4 different types of coaching over the course of 12 months. 

One group (the control) got basic information about food choices and calories, label reading, and were coached on things like mindfulness, stress and time management, and building a supportive social network. They were not given specific guidelines about how much to eat and they were not asked to track their food intake.

A second group received coaching on something called Regulation of Cues (ROC). They were taught to be more aware of situations, thoughts, and environments that lead to overeating, and to use various coping skills to decrease the reactivity to food cues. They learned how to distinguish hunger from the desire to eat and how their emotions affected their desire to eat. They learned how to recognize and deal with food cravings.  

(Any of you listening who are alumni of the Weighless coaching program that I run with Brock Armstrong are going to find this very familiar territory, as we spend a lot of time on these skills in that program.)

A third group was given specific calorie-intake guidelines and told to monitor their food and calorie intake along with physical activity. They were also coached on meal planning, mindful eating, and other behavior change techniques. 

And there was one last group who received both the behavioral coaching for weight loss as well as the ROC training.

So what happened? 

The control group, which focused on mindfulness, experienced very little change in their weight, either during or after the study.  

The group that received the Regulation of Cues training lost a modest amount of weight during the trial and then continued to drift slightly lower over the course of the next year. That’s especially interesting because this group didn’t get any specific instructions about monitoring food or restricting calories. Instead, they focused on paying more attention to their internal hunger signals.

The two groups that received the behavioral weight loss coaching (one with the ROC training and one without) both lost more weight initially than the group that only had the ROC training. But then they regained a fair amount of that weight in the maintenance phase. By the end of the maintenance phase, all three groups (the behavioral, the ROC, and the behavioral + ROC) had lost the same amount of weight. 

But there was one other interesting finding. The researchers had done some assessments at the beginning of the study to identify those who seemed to be particularly susceptible to food and eating cues. This is considered to be an inherited trait. Not surprisingly, those people who were more susceptible to those cues got a lot more benefit from the ROC training. 

So what can we learn from this? 

For one thing, it suggests that we are not completely at the mercy of our obesogenic environment. It is possible to learn skills and strategies that make us more resistant to its effects. 

But it also underlines that obesity is not a simple disease with a single cause and effect. There are many interlocking causes–and we differ in our level of susceptibility to those various factors. So, making progress against overweight and obesity is going to require that we customize the approach to the individual. And it’s great to have more tools in that toolbox. 

The show notes for today include links to some of the studies I referenced. You can find those in your podcast listening app or on our show page: nutrition-diva.simplecast.com, where you’ll also be able to read a transcript, if that feature is not available in your listening app. 

The Nutrition Diva show is part of the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast network. It’s audio-engineered by Nathan Semmes with script editing by Adam Cecil. Our team at Macmillan also includes Morgan Christianson, Davina Tomlin, and our intern Brendan Picha.

Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week!

Sources:

Hendrikse JJ, Cachia RL, Kothe EJ, McPhie S, Skouteris H, Hayden MJ. Attentional biases for food cues in overweight and individuals with obesity: a systematic review of the literature. Obes Rev. 2015 May;16(5):424-32. Link

Boutelle KN, Eichen DM, Peterson CB, et al. Effect of a Novel Intervention Targeting Appetitive Traits on Body Mass Index Among Adults With Overweight or Obesity: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(5):e2212354. Link