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The number of overweight and obese people doubled over the past 30 years, reaching 2.1 billion worldwide in 2013.Kirsty Wigglesworth/The Associated Press

Obesity rates continue to skyrocket around the world. The Lancet medical journal recently reported that the number of overweight and obese people doubled over the past 30 years, reaching 2.1 billion worldwide in 2013, despite public health campaigns and other measures that promote healthy eating and exercise.

A new study by researchers at McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management in Montreal may help explain why. The authors argue that attempts to reduce obesity – such as food labelling programs, diet and exercise plans, and taxes on junk food – are too fragmented and, as a result, largely ineffective.

Our eating habits "must be seen as part of a big system" that is affected not only by our own behaviours but also by those of our peers, the food products that companies offer for sale, and by the regulatory environment in which they are sold, explains Jeroen Struben, assistant professor of strategy and organization at McGill.

"Collectively all of these factors influence our behaviours, actions and decisions."

Dr. Struben co-authored the study with two colleagues, also from McGill: Laurette Dubé, professor of management, and Derek Chan, a PhD student.

Dr. Struben explains it this way: Consumers who live in an environment with an abundance of food that is high in fat, sugar and salt, and where all their friends have poor eating habits, can't easily change their own behaviours; neither will companies introduce healthy alternatives if the market demand is not there. "It's hard to decouple yourself from your environment even if you are conscious of these kinds of choices," Dr. Struben says.

As a result, many well-intentioned measures inevitably fail. Take, for example, a bid by Campbell Soup Co. several years ago to introduce some brands of soup with a lower salt content. The company backtracked soon afterward and withdrew them from supermarket shelves because of low sales.

Breaking this cycle requires a co-ordinated effort among food producers, retailers, consumers and governments. If companies were to make healthier food options available at the same time that governments launched campaigns to promote healthy eating, while local retailers offered the products in stores, the chances of success would be much higher, the researchers conclude.

They created what they call a "nutritional market transformation model" to illustrate how supply, demand and the actions of governments are interrelated and collectively influence food consumption and nutritional quality. When simulations of individual industry initiatives are entered into the model, they appear to have a moderate to low effect in reducing adult body mass index, a measure of body fat and fitness. Self-regulated marketing campaigns that promote high-nutritional food, in particular, have "negligible" long-term benefits. The same holds true for government interventions when taken independently.

"Our results show how single-pronged initiatives, whether designed and deployed under governmental or private-sector leadership, are ineffective, failure-prone and costly," they conclude. Shifting the market toward higher nutritional quality requires co-ordination among all players.

If it sounds like a complicated way to achieve something that our parents and grandparents took for granted, that's because it is, says Dr. Struben. A rise in population has meant that goods are produced on a much larger scale nowadays than in previous generations. "That makes it hard to get back to that model in a way that is sustainable," he says.

Although there are many good efforts under way to bring it about, it's important to realize that change will take time and be more difficult than anticipated, he adds. "Realizing that, we can be more open to the fact that this is a collective effort."

The study was part of a special feature published online in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Researchers to examine ethics and practices used in sex trade studies

A multidisciplinary team that includes Scott Comber, assistant professor at Dalhousie University's Rowe School of Business in Halifax, was awarded a $300,000 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to examine the research ethics and practices used in studying the sex trade.

The three-year effort will examine the ethical challenges of conducting research in this field, as well as issues such as consent, confidentiality and privacy.

The team includes Adrian Guta, a postdoctoral fellow in health sciences at Carleton University in Ottawa, and Victoria Bungay and Colleen Varcoe, both nursing professors at the University of British Columbia. The team plans to begin its work in British Columbia because of the high volume of sex-work research conducted there and then move across Canada to look at policies and guidelines governing this type of research.

Dr. Comber said, while the study is focused on sex work, its conclusions will be applicable to other research fields. "It's always good for researchers to ask questions around what we've done, what we're currently doing and ways we can improve," he says in a news release.

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