Obesity Causes Environment

Environmental factors are significant causes of obesity in America. Although no single cause explains the steady increase of obesity rates since the 1980s, a number of environmental factors certainly contribute. From the ready availability of high-calorie food to urban planning that discourages physical activity, environment and obesity are closely connected.

History, Environment and Obesity

For much of human history, finding food was a challenge. Large amounts of energy were necessary for hunting, gathering, or growing food, and a steady supply of food was unlikely. Since people usually only had enough energy necessary for survival, obesity was nearly impossible.

The human body reflects its historical reality. In circumstances where food supply was erratic, it made sense to eat when you could in order to prepare for periods without food. The need for a physiological system to burn off excess calories was not necessary, since basic survival provided that energy release.

Today, however, food is available to most people at all times, and opportunities for physical activity have declined. These environmental factors have resulted in a slow, but gradual, progression towards weight gain.

According to the Coronary Artery Disease in Young Adults study (2010), the average American adult gains 1 to 4.5 pounds of weight a year over 15 years. The same study indicates only 25 percent of Americans succeed in maintaining body weight over the same time period.

Food, Environment and Obesity

Easy access to food is one of the more important environmental causes of obesity. A number of food-related environmental factors insidiously promote weight gain.

Portion sizes have increased since the 1980s in fast food restaurants and at home. Snacks and soft drink servings have also increased in size, causing an increase of obesity in America.

High energy, fat and/or sugar foods are often more accessible, easier to prepare, and cheaper than healthier food. This may explain why obesity is a problem for low socio-economic groups as well as more affluent groups.

People are constantly reminded of food, both because it is readily available and because food advertising is so commonplace. For the first time in human history, it’s more difficult to avoid food (or images of food) than it is to find it, at least in industrialized countries.

Causes of Obesity: Physical Environmental Factors

Obesity in America is also often associated with physical environmental factors. Today’s urban landscape often sabotages physical activity. A lack of sidewalks in neighborhoods and long distances between work and home encourage people to drive rather than walk to destinations.

The American workforce has seen a drop in physical labor and a rise in sedentary desk jobs, often with immediate access to snack and soft drink vending machines. You can find the same link between environment and obesity at schools, with less physical activity and similar vending machines.

To make the problem worse, less than 30 percent of Americans seek out physical recreation, as reported by the publication Environmental Contributions to Obesity (2002). Television, the Internet and video games are often more attractive at the end of a day’s work than a walk or trip to the gym.

Fortunately, environmental causes of obesity can be counteracted. A commitment to regular physical activity and selecting healthy foods goes a long way towards preventing obesity in America.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009). Overweight and obesity. Retrieved April 7, 2010, from http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/causes/index.html.

Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults. (2010). Coronary artery risk development in young adults. Retrieved July 26, 2010, from http://www.cardia.dopm.uab.edu/index.htm.

Hill, J.