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Researchers seek to identify environmental risk factors for obesity

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 15-Oct-2012
Last updated on 15-Oct-2012 at 13:07 GMT

A new €3.8m research project aims to pinpoint the environmental and social risk factors for obesity throughout the European Union, with a view to informing future policy.

More than 50% of European adults are overweight or obese, with obesity rates exceeding 20% in many member states. However, obesity prevalence varies between and within countries.

The SPOTLIGHT project (sustainable prevention of obesity through integrated strategies) is a new study funded by a research grant from the European Commission, which brings together 13 research centres in eight countries across the region.

While obesity-prevention strategies have often focused on the individual, this project aims to identify the physical and social environmental elements that shape people’s behaviour, and how interventions might target these factors alongside individual-focused strategies.

“We know now that you can’t see individuals without their context,” said project manager Dr Jeroen Lakerveld of the VU University Medical Centre of Amsterdam. “…We are curious to know what the exact differences are and the interactions between them.”

Differences in age, household income and culture have previously been linked to obesity rates, but Lakerveld said that these factors alone do not sufficiently explain the specific drivers that lead people to put on weight on a day-to-day basis. Physical environmental factors that the researchers intend to examine include opportunities for physical activity in particular areas, and distance to certain shops and food outlets, he said.

“We need to understand how the physical and the social environment lead to changes in people’s activity levels and eating behaviour. We need to understand the interplay between the barriers and difficulties to maintaining a healthy weight, and more importantly, we need to identify what the best options are for solving these problems,” said Lakerveld.

By the time the project is completed in 2016, the researchers expect to collate location-specific information on current interventions in an interactive web-atlas.

Countries involved in the SPOTLIGHT project are the Netherlands, Portugal, the UK, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, France and Hungary. Further information on the project is available online here .

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