Obesogenic

In our household, the big news a couple of weeks ago that “selfie” was voted the hottest new word of the year came as no surprise. Likewise that “twerk” had been a close runner up. Both of these topics had been hot at our dinner table for months. Clearly we have our finger on the pulse of pop culture in America. The Oxford Dictionary says that use of “selfie” grew by 17,000% this year.

This got me thinking about the word “obesogenic,” another relatively new addition to the lexicon. According to Merriam-Webster, “obesogenic” is defined as “promoting excessive weight gain: producing obesity.” And like “twerk” and “selfie,” its appearance is a sign of our times. You may not have heard this word. I did a quick web search and found a news release from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary listing it as a new addition in 2012, along with “f-bomb,” “sexting,” and “life coach.” Its rise has been less than meteoric. For some reason, “obesogenic” hasn’t caught on like “sexting.”

It’s a word I thought about a lot as I was writing the “Mission” and “About” pages for this website. It is quite challenging to find a concise way to describe the ways that our environment can negatively impact our ability to be active and eat healthy foods. See how clunky that was? So talking about our “obesogenic” environment is a convenient proxy that I did end up using and likely will again.

An online search reveals that the word seems still to be used primarily in scientific contexts by the public health community, but seems to be catching on in the popular press. An article from Real Simple magazine, entitled Is Your Home Obesogenic? has gotten a lot of traction. I can see why that article would be appealing for a popular magazine because it offers the possibility of easy fixes, like using smaller dinner plates to control portion sizes and putting your exercise gear where you can see it. It’s a good article and those are good ideas. But there are no easy fixes for the environments that are outside our immediate control: our communities, schools, workplaces and such. There are only difficult, slow and complex fixes. Our culture of instant gratification doesn’t like those nearly as much.

A big part of me wants “obesogenic” to succeed as a hot word. Because if it does, then the concept it is describing has made it to prime time, too. And right now, not nearly enough people are acknowledging, discussing, or fighting against our obesogenic environment.

Unfortunately, it’s a word I really dislike. Its root, “obesity,” is a word that I try to avoid. It simply doesn’t adequately describe the problem I’m trying to get at. It is health and vitality we’re after here, not skinniness or a certain BMI. And, it’s clinical. Although it has become so commonly used in non-clinical contexts that it seems less so, nowadays.

We could really use another word. We need a word with more specificity than “unhealthy” but maybe a little less icky sounding than “obesogenic. “ And it has to be punchy, like “selfie” or “sext.” Please feel free to put any suggestions you have in the comments section. Until then, keep twerking. It’s excellent exercise, after all.

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