Doncaster used to be famous for coal mining and railway engineering. Today it is famous for having one of the most overweight communities in the United Kingdom. Obesity related health problems cost the local health authority £ 91million ($ 148m) every year, which equates to nearly £ 1400 ($ 2,300) per person. So what is wrong with Doncaster? Why are so many people overweight or obese? Is it just bad eating and lifestyle habits?
Bad eating and lifestyle habits are the root cause of the problem, but there is another element which actually exacerbates the situation. It's the fact that obesity is socially contagious.
What has developed in communities like Doncaster is a fundamental change in social norms. To be overweight or obese in Doncaster is not seen as different or out of the ordinary. In fact it has a very high degree of social acceptability.
A recent study in the US found that you have a more than 60% chance of becoming obese if your friends are obese. It's easy to understand why. A new norm is established. You feel comfortable in the company of other obese people. A bond is created within your social network and you feel safe from criticism.
Families also set their own norms. If bad eating and lifestyle habits are a part of the family 'culture', and being overweight or obese is accepted, or not the subject of comment or criticism, the contagion easily spreads to friends within the family social network.
The television company ITV is doing a six month investigation into obesity, starting in Doncaster. They have certainly chosen a challenging place to start. Highlighting the problems of Doncaster is extremely helpful, but it would be unfair to suggest that they can come up with a solution to the town's problem, and it's illegally that this is their intent, but a solution needs to be found – urgently.
So where might a solution lie? There are two areas which could provide the answer. The first is in influencing individual behavior and the second is in providing example and social support.
As far as the individual is concerned it's not about going on a diet. A diet will help to reduce weight, but diet weight loss is only short-term weight loss, the weight will come back again. It's about changing behavior. Without behavior change there can be no weighting loss. Getting people to change their behavior by learning new eating and lifestyle habits – slim habits, is the only way to achieve permanent weight loss.
Why are habits so important? Because they influence and dictate our behavior. They allow us to carry out routine tasks automatically, without thinking. Every day we set our brains on autopilot and allow our habits to run our lives. We learn our habits, good and bad, through repetition and practice, they become 'hotwired' onto our brain where they stay forever. We can not change them or get rid of them, but we can learn new habits to supersede them. Learning new habits is the simplest and most effective way to change behavior. They are the key to permanent weight loss.
To change the established norm of a community is a huge challenge. It will take time and perseverance, but by establishing a nucleus of people willing to change their behavior and set an example, and by getting them to recruit others to their cause who wants to make change, it is possible to make progress: couple that with a system of social support within the groups, and the likelihood of a new norm being established in Doncaster becomes more than just a possibility.
For Doncaster, doing nothing about this problem is not an option: the financial cost to the community unsustainable and the personal cost to individuals is unacceptable. A slim and healthy future is there for everyone in Doncaster who wants it. The secret lies in making change. In changing behavior and learning new eating and lifestyle habits – slim habits.