While diet and levels of physical activity are touted as the main factors in obesity, environment can play a role as crucial as personal behaviors. A recent blog entry by Megan Carter, PhD, lists socioeconomic status and cultural upbringing as factors, but focuses on how community dynamics can affect community members' health habits and access to a healthy lifestyle. Although previous insights have shown that social factors like having obese friends or relatives can increase an individual's likelihood of becoming obese, Carter claims that the close relationships in tight-knit communities can actually help prevent obesity.
Eating, as Carter points out, is an inherently social activity, since both buying and consuming food usually take place in shared public spaces like grocery stores, restaurants, and the family kitchen. It makes sense, then, that community members would influence one another's dietary habits via peer pressure or positive role modeling. The idea that individual behavior affects behavior within a greater social sphere boils down to what Carter calls "the Chameleon effect," the idea that "merely perceiving certain behaviours makes us more likely to engage in those behaviours." But community dynmics affect obesity in several more profound ways, says Carter. Public safety, for example, plays a role in both physical activity and accessibility of healthy foods. Members of tight-knit communities are more likely to practice "informal social control" - in other words, self-policing. Neighbors who are comfortable with one another won't hesitate to call each other out on illegal or unsafe behaviors, leading to a safer public environment that, in turn, lends itself to outdoor activity (and parents more willing to shoo children outdoors for playtime). Safe communities are also more conducive to locally run businesses like grocery stores or farmers' markets that provide members with access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Close interpersonal relations within communities also enable what Carter calls "collective action," or power in numbers:
Highly cohesive neighbourhoods may have more power to influence physical and social changes within the neighbourhood itself, at higher levels of social organization, such as at municipal and regional levels ... For example, if neighbourhood members deem that being in a food desert is a problem they may have the collective might to bring about policies that allow farmers markets to locate within the community, thereby improving the accessibility of healthier foods.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, members of cohesive communities are more likely to take care of one another. While isolated individuals may not be aware of public health resources, members of friendly communities keep each other up to date. Strong community support also combats yet another major contributer to obesity: stress caused by loneliness or overwhelmedness, which can lead to unhealthy eating or bingeing as a coping mechanism.
Previously: Study shows U.S. obesity rates will expand over next 40 years
Photo by NatalieMaynor