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Is Obesity an epidemic?

What does it mean to cast obesity as a disease?

Tina Moffat argues in a recent Medical Anthropology Quarterly article that some critical anthropologists and sociologists see the obesity “epidemic” as entirely “socially-constructed.”

By talking about obesity as an epidemic, Moffat points out that the implication is that obesity is a disease. The article interrogates this frame. On the one hand, such a frame may mean that health insurers in America can cover treatment and such may allow more research and policy money be made available in a society where medical research is robustly funded. But on the other hand, this conceptualization may focus solutions on the individual—rather than structural considerations like poverty and insufficient access to healthy food choices or ignoring socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and cultural factors. Rather than looking at obesity as an epidemic, childhood obesity would need to be examined “as part of larger societal and global forces that require multifaceted solutions that are thoughtful and directed at changes in social and economic policy, the environment, and our cultural milieu.”

The author concludes by exhorting a middle path:

One approach is to treat childhood obesity as a social and environmental problem that is in part fueled by a “toxic food environment,” as mentioned above. Or perhaps we should link it metaphorically to consumption, not just of food, but of material goods, related to concerns about global warming and environmental destruction.

What are the most effective rubrics? How can the medical community, public health researchers, and anthropologists all dialogue about the best ways to work together to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity?

2 Responses

  1. [...] Is Obesity an epidemic? (aaanet.org) [...]

  2. Or you could ask, is childhood obesity as currently defined (relative to children from the 1970s and 1980s) actually a “problem”? This is part of the framing that also needs to be questioned. Does childhood obesity actually need to be “reduced”? After all, children in the 1940s were probably thinner than children in the 1970s – did those children actually need to be reduced even though now they function as the (not updated) norm.

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