The study, led by Dr. Sara Kirk, a former registered dietician and an expert on the management and prevention of obesity, states that people need to look at the culture and the environment to get to the root causes of obesity.
"For many years, we've looked at weight as an individual problem. It's a personal responsibility — willpower, call it what you will. The general consensus still is that it is an individual problem, one that should not be medicalized," Kirk said.
"Actually, there's a huge body of literature that's coming out now that says we need to look at the culture and the environment," she said.
"In my research I'm trying to understand what it's like for the person who has a problem to go to a doctor and then be told it's your own fault — just eat less and do more activity — because that's how we treat obesity. But we must also recognize that there are other things at the core, our policies need to change," she added.
Kirk said that daily life has changed so dramatically in the past 50 years that most people have little opportunity for built in activity. The western 'driving and convenience culture' is seductive.
"As humans, we want to take the easy way and it's very hard to go against that," she said.
The study is still in process. It focuses on the 'obesiogenic environment' in childhood.
The study looks at the factors in the environment, access to green spaces, access to food that might contribute to obesity in children.
The next step is to measure the body mass index (BMI) of children and map this according to the characteristics of the environment.
"We're going to identify factors in the environment that actually contribute to childhood obesity, and then ask 'can we do something to change the way that people respond to the environment?'" Kirk said.
This research will use cutting-edge technology, including global positioning systems (GPS) to understand how children interact with their environments and exploring the intersection of community planning, physical activity and body weight. Studying the interaction of behaviour and the environment will help prevent obesity.
"Can we intervene earlier? If we can identify people before they become overweight or obese, can we get in there and actually stop them from gaining weight? And how do we equip health care specialists to do that well?" Kirk said.
There are known risk factors associated with obesity, such as having a parent who is overweight, having pregnancies close together and struggling to quit smoking. If these lifestyle issues could be attached to an electronic health record, the knowledge could be incorporated into the management of the health care system.
"We need to look at the politics around how we price, package and market food. We need the policy to change, like agricultural policy. For instance, corn syrup is in pretty much everything, because it's cheap to produce," Kirk said.
"I'm only half way through my first year here, but there's a lot to be done. The problem is that, as humans, we want to take the easy way. And I wonder whether we can actually put the genie back in the bottle?" she said.