Why is there an epidemic of obesity in today’s society?

Lately, the news has been consumed with studies showing that nowadays 1 in 2 Britons are overweight, and 1 in 4 considered clinically obese, and how we're heading towards what’s happening in America. Thinking about it, this situation is hardly surprising.

If we look at the way that the majority of people live it is about as far away from a natural lifestyle as you can get, and I’m talking about when we were hunter, gatherer, cavemen types. At it's most basic, that is what could be considered the natural human state. If you look at any animal in its natural state do you see obesity? No. If you look at animals that are out of there natural state, and not only humans, say, pets, such as cats or dogs, do you see obesity, yes you do.

If you look at today’s world, everything is unnatural, most of us have jobs, we get up at a set time each day, journey into work, have a set lunch break usually, journey back from work, then crash out in front of the TV. Grabbing what we can to eat along the way. So the basic make up of our day could be seen as very strange indeed, but its what we do.

When we do eat, most of us don’t make the most sensible of choices, but how much of this is our fault. If you go into a supermarket, how many products do you think are actually in that store, 100's if not 1000's. Many of these products will not be as good for us as they should be, so the odds of an individual who doesn't know too much about nutrition making the right choice are extremely low. And the chances of an individual having any knowledge of nutrition is also extremely low, Home Economics in school is almost non-existent nowadays, and anyway, how many of us, especially boys were interested in cooking when we were teenagers, I for one was not.

For those who are under a great deal of pressure, we may work non-stop through the day, until our blood glucose levels are so low, that eventually our body can take no more and sends a signal telling us that we are "starving". When we feel like this our body craves sugary and fatty foods. Not the best time to be making a choice about what to eat is it.

Therefore one main reason for so many people being overweight is the time constraints placed on us through work, limited knowledge of what is better for us to eat, and the shear amount of choice we have with food, that is simply overwhelming. A combination that is creating an epidemic of obesity in the western world, and becoming one in other countries, such as China.

The other main problem is of course the amount of physical activity we do, and I’m not talking about exercise, or gyms, or health clubs, I’m talking simple day to day activity. As a hunter gatherer we would have to go out and kill our food, maybe spend hours tracking and stalking our prey, then carrying it back to the cave for her indoors and the kids. If we wanted to go anywhere, the only option we had was to walk or run. How many obese cavemen do you think there were.

Nowadays we hardly have to expend any energy to get anywhere or do anything. We have cars, trains, buses, and so many other forms of trasnport. No one uses stairs anymore, we have lifts, escalators and moving walkways everywhere. A staircase is usually only there as a fire escape. We have remote controls, so we can sit quite happily for hours on end without moving. In the kitchen we have any number of tools to make life easier, such as electric whisks and blenders. Even items such as electric screwdrivers, everything is designed to save time and effort. And it’s getting to the point where we would never have to leave our seat for anything. We can do everything over the internet, we will never have to go shopping again, or go down to the bank, no longer do you have to physically search out information, down the library for example, a couple of minutes on a search engine and you're there. Working from home is also becoming ever more popular.

So you can see that our physical activity levels are falling as fast as the choice of usually unhealthy food increases, you could say we are in a lose-lose situation. Only those who avidly read the food label of every product before they put it in the trolley, and with the willpower to spend hours each week in the gym will be the lucky ones to escape this trap it appears. To those who are overweight it may seem that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, they will never be gym junkie nutritionists so what’s the point of even trying?

What can be done?

To be honest, if I had my way and I was the dictator of this country I would make a hell of a lot of changes. Just to list a few:

1. I would abolish all McDonalds, Burger Kings, KFC's and just about all other fast food establishments.

2. Sweep most food off the shelves of supermarkets that didn’t come up to standard.

With less crap food to choose from people would have to eat more healthily. Admittedly this would be a nanny state, but looking at the situation we’re in it’s clear that people cant cope with looking after themselves, it would be a case of being cruel to be kind.

3. Abolish escalators and lifts, apart from in tall buildings and for the disabled.

4. Discard a lot of the day to day items that reduce how active we are.

Well I could go on, but it would just get more and more ludicrous.

Another option would be a national campaign with millions of taxpayers pounds behind it, with nutritional education from cradle to grave. But we cant even get the nation to quite smoking, so how we could get everyone to change their eating habits would be anyone’s guess. In this free democratic society, we are allowed choice, which is a fundamental principle that we cant kill off selectively for some areas of our lives.

We could force all manufacturers of food to improve the contents of their products, so whatever we ate, we ended up eating healthily. Unfortunately, we are programmed to absolutely love the taste of fat and sugar, due to its scarcity when we lived in caves. Fat has more then twice as many calories as carbohydrate and protein, and so is a great source of energy, which the body loves to store. And as yet a viable healthy alternative to these substances has not been found, unless you don’t mind running to the toilet every 10 minutes. Because we do crave the taste of sugar and fat, manufacturers pack their products full of it so that we will buy it, pushing their profits up even further.

It’s a war that cant be won, right?

It seems that we will never be in the position where it is more unusual to be fat, then it is to be an individuals optimal weight. It would take some sort of revolution, which simply isn’t going to happen. Maybe Governments will step in when 90% of the population is clinically obese and the NHS can no longer cope with the amount of illness and problems this would cause, who knows, this may not be so far away in the future.

What we have at this point in time is not prevention, but cure. Unfortunately, there are many different ideas, by many different people and companies as to what the most effective cure is. Can drugs cure obesity? Can a specialist diet bring you the body shape you want? What about all the videos on offer, surely one of them must be right for you, unfortunately, and this is going to hurt, but then again the truth always does.... There are no quick fixes.

Lets take a look at what usually happens when people make the decision to go on a “diet”. A lot of people make this decision when they suddenly get the feeling that they are at the end of their tether. One day they suddenly catch themselves in the mirror slightly differently, they hate what they see and they make the decision that their lives will no longer be the same. Maybe they decide to do a diet plan, such as the cabbage soup diet, this is just one of many, but the same analogy can be made with most of them. Most diets require the person to make massive wholesale changes in their life, lets say a person needs to make 20 changes in their day to day life to abide by the diet plan. At first they can manage this, there is initially a huge amount of self-motivation to lose the weight and stick to the diet. The weight seems to come off quickly at first, then as the weeks go by, weight loss becomes slower, and slower, until maybe only 1 lb. or none at all is being lost per week. As the weight loss slows, motivation decreases, and the initial 20 changes may be reduced to 15 changes as the person reverts back to their original ways of eating. 15 may then become 10, at this point even the remaining 10 changes in the persons life may not be enough to continue to provide any weight loss, and the individual may give up all together. Reverting completely back to how they were, they begin to gain weight again, and the cycle continues. Hence the yo-yo dieter.

What should be done?

Instead of making a whole raft of changes in a very short space of time an individual would have a much greater chance of success if to start with they only made a couple of changes to their diet. So instead of using full fat milk on their corn flakes, they change to semi-skimmed, or they don’t put so much mayonnaise in their sandwich. These are very simple changes that are easy to stick to. Then maybe a couple of weeks later another couple of changes are made, and so it’s done very slowly, so the person almost doesn’t notice. If they don’t notice, how can they revert back to how they were. After 3 months or even more the persons diet may be completely different to how it was, but it would seem unimaginable to go back to how they used to eat. Its all about lifestyle changes, little tweaks here and there, not massive overnight changes that aren’t going to last long term. How could anyone live on cabbage soup for the rest of his or her life. It’s just not feasible.

The dieter may also not consider, or not be prepared to include any exercise in their plan. This has the effect of reducing the lean tissue, i.e. the muscle mass of the body, which needs to be held onto at all costs. After all, muscles burn calories. The aim of any diet is to create a calorie deficit, so that daily, the energy expended is greater then the number of calories taken in. The idea is that the body will then make up this deficit by burning its fat stores. Unfortunately, the body doesn’t care where it gets these extra calories from and will quite happily metabolize muscle tissue before it begins to burn its fat stores. One reason it does this is because it sees that the muscles aren’t being exercised and so decides it doesn’t really need them. Also, fat is a great source of energy and the body will hang onto it and store it for as long as it can, before its forced to start using it. Therefore a dieter will lose lean tissue along with fat unless they incorporate exercise into their diet.

The type of exercise done is also very important, for a dieter, aerobic exercise is of course the best method isn’t it, or is it? Aerobic exercises such as walking or cycling does not actually place the muscles under a great deal of stress, and so the individual will still suffer from lean tissue loss. The answer to this problem is weight lifting, and this applies to women as well as men. Lifting weights places the muscles under much more stress then aerobic exercise, therefore the body thinks, ok I’m using my muscles, I cant get rid of them, I have to use my fat stores. Therefore, fat loss becomes much more effective. Maintaining, or even increasing the amount of lean tissue in the body will also aid fat loss, as more muscles will burn more calories. Muscles also give the body shape and form, as well as providing an increase in strength and stamina.

In Summary

To achieve fat loss, start with very few changes in the diet, and think about what opportunities there are in your life to increase your activity levels. A calorie deficit of 500 a day will result in the loss of 1lb per week. Therefore simple changes in the diet to reduce calorie intake by 250 a day, and increasing activity levels to burn an extra 250 a day will achieve this.

I haven’t mentioned this before, but water is exceptionally important. It is vital in the efficiency of many of the chemical processes of the body. Maybe most importantly, fat metabolism. Alcoholic drinks, and drinks containing caffeine such as tea, coffee or cola actually leach water from the body, and result in increased dehydration. So reduce these and increase water intake. Sipping from a bottle throughout the day is a good method, with the aim of emptying the bottle by the end of the day.

Increasing activity levels could include walking to the station instead of driving, walking the kids to school instead of driving, use the stairs instead of the lift or escalator. When you go to the supermarket, park at the end of the car park so you have some walking to do. Hide the TV remote control.

Eat little but often throughout the day, if blood glucose levels drop too low fatty and sugary foods become far too tempting.

You don’t have to join a gym to gain a healthier lifestyle, but it may help. Instructors don’t actually have to be qualified, and many gyms, even so called reputable ones will employ kids because they can pay them peanuts, so make sure who you are talking to is qualified and knows what they’re talking about. If they do they will should start you on a beginners program and review and progress you every 4-6 weeks. Don’t be intimidated by gyms, the majority of people in there are just like you, wanting to achieve the same things as you.

The last thing I want to say is that your weight is not the fault of your “slow” metabolism, unless you have a specific medical condition. Everyone’s metabolism is around about the same speed as the next persons, with only very minor differences. Do not ask yourself why you are fat, ask yourself why the amount of calories you take in, exceeds the amount you expend, and you may come up with some answers.

If you see some sense in what Im saying, check out Losing Weight Safely, by Trina, she knows what shes talking about.

The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society ... It is a quality of mind that seems most dramatically to promise an understanding of the intimate realities of ourselves in connection with larger social realities. (Mills 1959, pp 6, 15)

The term, Sociological Imagination, was coined by CW Mills and refers to the working mechanism of the sociological mindset. It involves the tools one might use in order to evaluate issues from a sociological angle. This concept was primarily employed  for the application of linking between issues faced by the public and individuals’ personal dilemmas.

This essay was developed in order to understand a mass media issue with the help of the sociological imagination. The topic chosen, was obesity.

Obesity has become a large and dark reality since capitalisation. I will use the tools of the sociological imagination template, ie analysing it as a risk issue in children and adolescents by employing historical factors, cultural factors, structural factors and lastly critiquing it. These four features will then help provide a holistic analysis of this major issue from a sociological angle.

The essay shall attempt to understand and argue about the major epidemic of obesity amongst children, adolescents and adults residing in Australia.

The World Health Organisation recognises obesity as a disease that has spread globally over the last 25 years approximately. It has only become a major issue in recent times, due to its rise and frequency in adults as well as children. The issue of being overweight has specifically risen since major fast-food restaurant franchises became incorporated and rapidly started expanding on a global level. In relatively recent history, being overweight has been looked down upon as a character flaw and as a source of amusement through social ridicule; but this has not always been the case. Large people in a lot of cultures and in different time periods have been viewed as symbols of prosperity and wealth. This last perception of the correlation between wealth and prosperity with obesity is not surprising; as the majority of the population at that time were unaware of the health risks and believed being large meant you were well-fed and rich enough to afford the same. Currently, in some African cultures – obesity is still looked upon as a sign of being prosperous and not a victim of malnutrition. This perception exists in a few tribes wherein food is scarce and hence being overweight gives rise to the old perception of prosperity.

Insurance companies since the 1940s have noticed a definite link between being overweight and shorter life spans. In 1996, the Body Mass Index was introduced wherein the classification and typologies of being obese was explored. The BMI classifies people on the basis of age, sex and height to measure levels of obesity. Currently 20-25% of children and adolescents in Australia are obese wherein 4.9% of boys and 5.4% of girls are obese. According to a research carried out by the WHO, a significant number of subjects reported a family history of hypertension (8.0%), obesity (5.4%), diabetes (3.3%) and stroke (1.4%), with 14.6% of participants reporting any of these NCDs.

Although the above stated numbers might seem less than impressive to some, there is a definite visibility on the internet, of a large population trying to lose weight. In fact, there are business sectors dedicated to the same, wherein both advertisers as well as the related companies are trying to exploit different sub-typologies of obese people. There are diets structured around weight loss techniques which focus on taking only specific food-groups, colour-based food and other varied dietary consumption patterns. Some examples of such diets are the Atkins diet, Weightwatchers diet and others. The popularity of such diets can be attributed to their success rate and the readiness with which they gain acceptance with major celebrities.

Today’s society is trying to get ahead of the obesity epidemic due to health risks, personal physical perceptions, and embarrassment, amongst a large variety of reasons. The truth is, not being obese and looking fit is currently a fad itself rather than an eternal lifestyle choice that the next few generations will inevitably not dismiss. Alternatively, it is nearly impossible for the human population to not have fat/obese people as a definite percentage of the population. Even if somehow, we managed to completely eradicate corpulence for a small time period, a subculture of obese people would automatically emerge.

Currently, there are plenty of people living in places like America (among other countries) who are proud to be fat and embrace their lifestyle as a way of feeling complete. To this demographic, being large is a way of being themselves and they are happy to even accept the ridicule that comes their way. The writer strongly feels that such a perspective while being unhealthy can be derived partially by their dislike for 'stick-thin' model figures.

The essay would like to conclude that while the world is aware of its issues with corpulence and the spread of obesity – there are various measures being taken to adapt to and adopt a healthy lifestyle. Many fast-food restaurants are recognising this need to eat healthy foods instead of constant and instant gratification amongst a large portion of the population. An excellent example of this is McDonalds’ ‘tick approved’ meals wherein they offer healthier food by providing more green vegetables and giving juice for the drink instead of a cola. These meals have been independently tested by the National Heart Foundation and approved. While this is a small step to reduction of weight issues – more and more people are trying to be active as an effort to being fit physically and mentally.



  • Batch, Jennifer A. and Baur Louise A. (2005, February 7).Medical Journal of Australia  Vol 182, Number 3. Management and prevention of obesity and its complications in children and adolescents. Viewed March 26, 2010 from here
  • Germov, J. and Poole, M. (2007) Public Sociology: An Introduction to Australian Society. Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest N.S.W.
  • Pesic, M. (2006, November 12). The History of Obesity. Retrieved March 26, 2010, from here
  • Sande, Marianne A.B. van der et al (2001) Family history: an opportunity for early interventions and improved control of hypertension, obesity and diabetes. Viewed March 27, 2010, from here

DisclaimerThis was born out of an assignment requirement, done for the subject 'Introduction to Sociology' - a beginner course into the fascinating field of Sociology. As per the parameters of the assignment stub, the idea was to divide the word-limit between all 4 factors so as to exercise effective knowledge of the Sociological Imagination.The noder has simply put his homework on the Internet, in the spirit of Node your homework. He requests no copy-and-pasting be done.


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