Thoughts from the National Obesity Summit

I recently attended the National Obesity Summit in Montreal, organized by the Canadian Obesity Network. The conference was well-organized with a great line-up of excellent speakers; it was often hard to choose between sessions.  I also enjoyed the opportunity to catch-up with colleagues and form new connections. In today’s post and several subsequent ones I’ll discuss some of the ideas presented at the sessions I attended.

The first day I attended a session titled “Mainstreaming the Sciences of the Brain and Society into Individual and Socio-Environmental Obesity Prevention”, moderated by Vural Ozdemir from McGill University. Dr. Ozdemir introduced the session with a metaphor for research: he likened the 20th century approach to the lone genius, where individuals tackled problems in isolation.  In contrast, he proposed that the 21st century approach is like an ocean liner, where science takes place as a collaborative action, bringing different sectors of expertise together, bridging disciplines and theories in order to solve the “wicked” problems we face, such as obesity. Developing real-world solutions that have global reach can be achieved by bringing together the best minds.

This introduction set the stage for Laurette Dubé of McGill University, who spoke about the brain-to-society systems model of motivated choice (1). This model seeks an integrated understanding of the determinants that shape the choices individuals make. As the name of the model suggests, it looks at the complex and dynamic interactions between brain systems (e.g. genetics, pyschology, etc…) and society systems (e.g. families, economies, environment, etc…) and how these shape behaviour. A key message of this model is that the individual and the environment do not work independently to influence either individual or collective lifestyle choices (2). Rather, this paradigm emphasizes the need for an approach that is cross-disciplinary, multi-level and multi-sector.

One example presented during Dr. Dubé’s talk examined how food choice is determined by the complex interactions of pathways in the brain, environmental cues, and societal pressures. Does increased exposure to fast food increase risk of obesity? Studies examining this link have had mixed results (3). In an article published last year in the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, Dubé and colleagues tested the hypothesis that the variability between individual’s susceptibility to fast food cues is linked to an individual’s “reward sensitivity” (3). Reward sensitivity refers to how strongly an individual responds to environmental cues that trigger reward pathways in the brain.

Subjects completed a questionnaire that included assessment of their degree of reward sensitivity and the number of times they visited a fast food restaurant in the preceding week.  Data on age, sex, education and income well also collected. A business inventory was used to determine the density of fast food restaurants within 500 m of each
participants’ home. The study found that individuals with greater reward sensitivity may be more likely to respond to unhealthy cues, such as fast food restaurants, in their immediate environment compared to individuals who are less sensitive to reward signals.

This study supports the integrated approach of the brain-to-society systems model of motivated choice (BtS) proposed by Dubé and colleagues: combining an analysis of brain systems (an individual’s susceptibility to cues that activate the brain’s reward circuit) with social systems (exposure to fast food) led to improved understanding of why some individuals are resistant to fast food stimuli. The next step is to use this knowledge to help modify environmental influences and tailor interventions and resources for a heterogeneous population. The paradigm of the BtS model strives to break the barriers between domains by developing collabortative networks and enhancing interdisciplinary convergence.

Many of the presentations from the National Obesity Summit were recorded; some videos are now available on the CON web site. For other perspectives on the National Obesity Summit, a number of colleagues and fellow bloggers have also shared their experiences:


1. Dubé, L., Bechara, A., Böckenholt, U., Ansari, A., Dagher, A., Daniel, M., DeSarbo, W., Fellows, L., Hammond, R., Huang, T., Huettel, S., Kestens, Y., Knäuper, B., Kooreman, P., Moore, D., & Smidts, A. (2008). Towards a brain-to-society systems model of individual choice Marketing Letters, 19 (3-4), 323-336 DOI: 10.1007/s11002-008-9057-y

2. Laurette Dubé et al. “Introduction: On the Brain-to-Society Model of Motivated Choice and the Whole-of-Society Approach to Obesity Prevention” in Obesity Prevention: The Role of Brain and Society on Individual Behavior. 2010, Pages xxiii-xxix Copyright © 2010 Elsevier Inc.

3. Paquet C, Daniel M, Knäuper B, Gauvin L, Kestens Y, & Dubé L (2010). Interactive effects of reward sensitivity and residential fast-food restaurant exposure on fast-food consumption. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 91 (3), 771-6 PMID: 20089726

The full text of this article is available for free from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition here.

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