Governments and health care professionals across the world are becoming worried, very worried. Why? Because despite their best efforts to persuade people to eat a healthier diet and to take more exercise, the obesity epidemic is getting worse.
In Britain, by 2050 60% of men and 40% of women will be obese. The cost to the NHS is well over £5 billion a year. For a condition that is entirely preventable, this is an unacceptable burden on society. For millions of individuals it means a life of unrealised potential, unnecessary health problems and a very uncomfortable and unhappy old age. Obesity is set to sap the strength of the nation. It is the greatest health challenge we have ever faced.
So why is the obesity crisis seemingly out of control? What is driving more and more people to become overweight or obese? Of course it’s about eating and lifestyle habits. We are all individually responsible for what we put in our mouths and how much exercise we take, but there is a new dimension. Obesity has become socially contagious. The main driver of obesity is a social one.
What has happened is that being overweight or obese has become a new social norm. It is now perfectly acceptable to be overweight or obese. It is not seen as being out of the ordinary or different. If you are overweight or obese you are more than likely to have overweight or obese friends. You mix with people who don’t threaten or criticise you. You feel comfortable in their company. In fact friends have the greatest influence on body weight. You are nearly 60% more likely to be overweight or obese if you have overweight or obese friends.
The discovery of this new dimension¹ actually offers some amazing opportunities that could transform the way we tackle the obesity crisis. The basis for this optimism is that if obesity is socially contagious, then being slim can be socially contagious too. It has become a social problem that has a social solution.
Up until now all weight loss programs have been directed at the individual. They have all been singularly unsuccessful at delivering permanent weight loss. At best they have delivered short-term weight loss, but the weight comes back again in over 95% of cases. The main reason for this is that they ignore the one thing that can deliver permanent weight loss, and that is behaviour change.
The simplest and most effective way to change behaviour is to learn new habits, slim habits. By modifying small behaviours (habits), complex behaviours can be changed
The social solution to the obesity problem lies in the community. Why? Because it can offer unparalleled support. By mobilising and organising overweight or obese people within a community into groups, and giving them supervision, education, advice – and a good behaviour change programme, you can use the power of community to be the driver of change. Do this and you have the means to end the obesity crisis.