The food decisions of each individual are conditioned by the social, cultural and economic environment, according to different studies.

A Valencian paella.

We all feel the influence of the canons of beauty. So much so that, even knowing that the stereotypes of the “ideal body” are temporary and changing, each of us can identify at least a characteristic that makes us feel insecure.

If reading this you have thought that your legs are too big or that your abdomen is prominent, let me tell you that there are more people in the same situation. According to WHO data, in 2016 approximately 39% of the adults were overweight and around 13% were obese. In other words, in a meeting of 10 friends, only half would be at their ideal weight in terms of health.

Beyond the aesthetic issues, being overweight is a risk factor for so-called non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which are chronic conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cancers and diabetes. In fact, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, NCDs were believed to be responsible for the 71% of all deaths globally. Therefore, one reason to keep our weight in check could be the simple goal of avoiding dying from these diseases. The question is, are we able to control our weight?

A single gene is not enough

We may think that we gain weight from having the “Obesity gene” (a variant of the FTO gene), or that we overeat for a genetic susceptibility to appetite For those who endorse their fitness in DNA, science regrets to announce that wearing a gene for a “disease” is not a sufficient condition to develop pathology. In fact, epigenetics explains that we can turn off or turn on the expression of genes through the methylation of genetic material thanks to the influence of environmental factors. In this way, our lifestyle habits play an important role when it comes to preventing or developing the onset of a disease.

Among these aspects of lifestyle, diet is the main risk factor for mortality and morbidity worldwide. But we are in luck, since being a modifiable habit 1 in 5 deaths worldwide could be avoided by improving the quality of the diet.

There is scientific evidence that a diet based on red and processed meats, refined grains and added sugars increases the risk of certain chronic diseases, while a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains it could help prevent them. Now, can we really decide what we eat? Or, perhaps, we are not solely responsible for following a poor quality diet?

Poor neighborhoods, less healthy food

Science shows that dietary decisions of each individual are conditioned by the social environment, cultural and economic that surrounds you. Thus, for example, the compact urban forms of developed countries facilitate the proximity of various food stores with a wide variety of offerings. This means easy access to products high in calories, fats, sugars and salt at low prices, accompanied by a large presence of fast food restaurants and massive advertising, which encourages unhealthy eating. All this seems to indicate that the food decisions we make are conditioned by the characteristics of the urban environment where we live.

In fact, analysis of food environments has shown that there are differences according to socioeconomic level: in higher income areas there is a higher proportion of supermarkets with a variety of foods, while in the poorest places small food establishments predominate. Additionally, schools in these low-income areas have a increased access to unhealthy food stores.

This implies that those who have a lower economic and educational level end up living in places that put more difficulties reaching a good diet Y look at the price before the quality when buying food. In contrast, population groups richer and with higher education They have the opportunity to live in areas that favor adequate eating habits, in addition to having greater knowledge about what is healthy and more resources to achieve it.

If the most vulnerable groups live in less favored environments, What alternative do they have? Well, public policies can be worked on to promote strategies that facilitate access to healthy food in areas of low socioeconomic status. For example, increasing the availability of specific foods, handling the price of products, use posters, labels and promotions helps prevent obesity. In addition, it is essential promote education on healthy eating behaviors so that these structural changes actually have an effect on the population.

Therefore, if we are concerned about our way of eating and our health, let’s review our economic and educational level, since both will tell us where we live and how we eat. Although we like to think that we are free to make our own decisions (where and how to live and what to eat), science warns that there are multiple factors that influence our actions, such as our city or our neighborhood. After all … who said free?

* This article was originally published on The Conversation.

** Ainara San Juan is a research collaborator at the University of the Basque Country.