Obesity is a word that our ears are becoming too accustomed to hearing. No matter how used to it we become, the health effects are the same; it is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and stroke, among other illnesses. Despite the warnings, and the exponential rate at which obesity has grown in the last two decades, the trend has remained the same – humans are getting bigger.
While we are all aware of the epidemic gripping the US and the UK, it is not only developed nations that are vulnerable to obesity. More and more developing and non-Western nations are showing signs of the spread of obesity. Science has pointed a finger at both genetic and societal reasons as causes of our expanding waistlines. Yet with so much controversy surrounding the subject, not to mention inconclusive results as to the causes, there seem to be many factors at play in the development of obesity.
What the Figures Say
The National Cancer Institute states 68 per cent of US adults are overweight or obese. Being overweight constitutes a body mass index (BMI) of between 25 and 29.9, while obesity is set from 30 to 39.9. A reading above 40 is classified as morbid obesity. BMI takes into account both weight and height to determine whether or not an individual is a healthy size. A score below 18.5 indicates that the person is underweight.
According to the Department of Health in the UK, almost 63 per cent of adults are overweight or obese. More than a quarter (26 per cent) of people in England are obese. Around a third of UK children are either overweight or obese, with research suggesting that overweight children are more likely to be overweight in adulthood than healthy weight kids.
Those figures are hardly surprising. However, a wider look at the global epidemic may be. The US Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has claimed 35 per cent of people in Kuwait are obese. That is in contrast to around 17.5 per cent of Europeans. In China, the obesity rate is below five per cent.
Key facts from the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that obesity rates are lowest in Korea, Japan, Switzerland and Norway – countries with hugely different cultures and eating habits. Still, the US, Mexico and New Zealand score highest for obesity.
The OECD results also suggest that uneducated women are two to three times more likely to be overweight or obese than their highly-educated peers. However, this disparity was not found among men. This is just one of the many thought-provoking facts emerging from research into obesity.
Causes of Obesity
There are plenty of theories behind the causes of obesity. Science has tried to uncover a gene, while also measuring what role self-control has to play. It is possible some people have a predisposition towards obesity but this is not a hard fact. It seems it may well be down to our increasingly sedentary lifestyles composed of office work, computer games, vehicles, alongside cheap high fat foods and aggressive marketing campaigns.
This last point about marketing is particularly striking. Did you know, for instance, that a 1950s US dress size of eight was reduced to four in the 1970s and to zero in 2006? That is according to marketing professor Aradhna Krishna of the University of Michigan. She has conducted a number of tests to determine the role of psychology in obesity and consumerism.
What the professor singles out is a phenomenon known as ‘vanity sizing’. As such, marketers are re-labelling large-size clothes as smaller to ease consumers’ concerns about their size so they feel good. In one study, professor Krishna found that vanity sizing improved people’s self-image. And hey, if we feel better about ourselves, we’re more likely to spend, right?
The professor’s findings do not end there, as she also highlighted the disparity among food labels between different fast food outlets. She hypothesised that consumers are influenced more by how much they believe they are eating than what their stomachs actually tell them.
She invited participants to eat as many cookies as they liked. However, one group were given cookies that were labelled large, while the others received medium-labelled cookies. The catch? The cookies were the exact same size. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the group that were given the medium-labelled cookies ate more than those in the group with large-labelled cookies.
This is an issue because, for instance, a portion of ‘small’ French fries served at Burger King is the same size as a ‘medium’ at McDonalds. Similarly, a medium-sized soda at Burger King is 32oz, compared to just 21oz at McDonalds. And by professor Krishna’s logic, we are more inclined to overeat if we believe we are consuming less than we really are, which will of course have an impact on our waistbands.
More sizing information for popular fast food outlets can be found at foodmarketing.org.
The Rise of Obesity in Developing Dations
A report published by the FAO has shed light on changing obesity rates in developing nations. It is not only Western societies that are affected by the condition, which is sweeping through poverty-stricken and Eastern regions too.
Research fellow at the New York Obesity Research Center Daniel Hoffman completed the study ‘Obesity in developing countries: causes and implications’. He explained that as the economies of developing countries improve, so too does their risk of obesity across all socio-economic groups as a result of greater access to food, alongside reduced physical activity and the consumption of so-called ‘western diets’.
These factors create an environment that may predispose people to becoming overweight or obese.
The report concentrates on the influence of urbanisation and how city-dwellers are put at certain greater health risks, including obesity. Mr Hoffman also considered the role of under-nutrition in early life and how that can predispose an individual to obesity.
Essentially, what the report points out is that as communities move away from agriculture towards urbanisation to earn their living, they adopt poorer eating habits and sedentary lifestyles. City life brings with it cars, desk jobs and a regular nine to five. Good quality food is often unaffordable to those on low incomes, so they are forced to buy junk food instead.
While on the farm, people had access to fresh fruit, vegetables and meat. Now they have to rely on fried foods and fatty meat. The move away from the farm means they are also undertaking less labour work, leading to reduced physical activity. Or, for those who still undertake labour in a cityscape, the cost of good quality food remains out of their reach. Mr Hoffman also pointed to the effects of poor nutrition in children, which can leave them more susceptible to obesity in adulthood.
So it seems that as we lead fast-paced lives in urban centres, many of us in both developed and developing nations are restricted to high fat foods partly because of cost and convenience. We have less cause to exert our bodies, and since we typically try to find the easiest modes of getting from one place to another, it takes a motivated individual to remain active for their health.
An Interesting Study on Food Advertising and Obesity
There is an abundance of research into the cause and effect of obesity. One such interesting study was published in The Journal of Pediatrics. It considered the role food advertising plays in obesity and which type of children are most vulnerable to campaigns.
According to the study, childhood obesity rates in the US have tripled in the past three decades. Corporations spend more than an annual $10 billion on marketing their food and drinks to children. However, 98 per cent of the foods advertised to kids on TV are high in fat, sugar or salt. In this study, researchers set out to uncover the effects of food logos on obese and healthy weight children.
Ten obese children and ten healthy weight kids were involved in the research, which used both self-measured reports and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to test their reactions to 60 food and 60 non-food logos.
Food logos triggered more reaction in some reward regions of the brain in obese participants than in healthy weight candidates. Healthy weight children showed greater activity in regions of the brain associated with self-control. This suggests that obese kids may be more vulnerable to food advertising and that improving self-control may raise an individual’s resistance to such campaigns.
Dr Amanda Bruce said:
One of the keys to improving health-related decision making may be found in the ability to improve self-control.
So is it psychology, self-control or budgetary restraints that are causing us to be obese? Perhaps it’s the move into the city and built up areas, or maybe it’s our lack of motivation to get out and enjoy a run? These may be more viable explanations than some claims about genetic influences.
It is certainly a nature versus nurture debate but we cannot forget that 60 years ago today’s dresses were two sizes smaller. What has changed since then? Is it our genetic make-up or our environment? Or perhaps the interplay of both. For now, that is up to the individual to decide.