How to curb the obesity epidemic

The importance of food environments for a healthy and sustainable diet

Department of Social Sciences

While many people know what a healthy and sustainable diet should include, it’s challenging for them to actually make healthy and sustainable choices. According to Maartje Poelman, this is because “food choices are complex.” She poses that social and physical environments play an important role in that.

This research contributes to Sustainable Development Goal 3: Good health and well-being.

To date, most public health and nutrition policies have focused on improving knowledge about healthy eating. “This is based on the notion that education is key to a healthy diet,” says Maartje Poelman of the Consumption and Healthy Lifestyles (CHL) group at Wageningen University & Research. “However, from a behavioural science and health perspective, we know it’s not that simple. Food choices are complex, as social and physical environments have a strong influence on our eating behaviour.”

If we want to collectively switch to a healthier and more sustainable eating pattern, a system change is required, Poelman observes. “Just look at the streetscape and supermarkets. For example, the majority of foods on offer in shopping streets comprise unhealthy and highly-processed convenience foods. The same goes for supermarkets: approximately 70% of the supermarket assortment and price promotions do not align with a healthy diet. But to curb the obesity pandemic, healthy and sustainable foods must become the norm.”

Obesity and diet-related chronic diseases, such as

cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes

are leading global health problems

The number of people with obesity worldwide has


since 1975, according to the World Health Organization

As many as

2 billion adults and 38 million children under 5

are overweight

“In fact, the Covid-19 pandemic has once again brought us face to face with the severity of obesity and diet-related chronic diseases,” Poelman elaborates, as being obese increases the risk of severe illness, hospitalisation and mortality due to a Covid-19 infection.

Something isn’t right

With that in mind, Poelman critiques the account that encouraging better food choices would be patronising to the consumer: “So if you inspire people to choose healthier foods by offering and promoting a wider range of healthy and sustainable alternatives, that would be patronising, but if you promote unhealthy and unsustainable products, it’s called ‘marketing,’ which is not considered an issue. Something isn’t right here!”

Food choices are complex; social and physical environments have a strong influence on our eating behaviour

How does the Consump­tion and Healthy Lifestyles (CHL) group create change?

Researchers know that social norms play an important role in behaviour. “We found that the more fast food outlets there are in a neighbourhood, the more people believed it was normal to consume fast food. Therefore, local governments are currently exploring the possibility of introducing zoning laws to prohibit new fast food outlets from settling there. In a recent study we also identified multiple actions that can be implemented by our national government to create a healthier food environment,” Poelman says.

Cautiously optimistic

A system change takes a long time, but Poelman is cautiously optimistic. “The system can be changed. Political support for tackling the food environment to promote a healthy lifestyle is more prominent now than, say, ten years ago. The Dutch National Prevention Agreement also addresses the food environment, although the actions proposed remain quite generic and voluntary. Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see that knowledge derived from behavioural and health sciences is now being incorporated in policy.”

The European Union’s Farm to Fork Strategy also defines important policies for a food environment that makes it easier for consumers to make healthy and sustainable choices. Poelman draws the comparison with tobacco: “It took a long time, but now we have reached the point where policies discourage the use of tobacco products, which has resulted in a reduction in the number of smokers. Even though tobacco is a different product, we can still learn from these approaches taken to improve population health. It’s a matter of politics, but as scientists we lay an important foundation that support these policy choices.”

Do you want to know more about environments for sustainable food choices? Ask our expert:

Maartje Poelman

Associate Professor Consumption and Healthy Lifestyles

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