Stanley J. Ulijaszek and Hayley Lofink
Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 35 (2006): 337-360
Never before have I read an article in The Annual Reviews of Anthropology- my first one, titled ‘Obesity in Biocultural Perspective’ I would like to comment on in regards to its approach and argument in general. The article is only 7 years old but the face of the literature on obesity has certainly changed since this review was published. As such I will attempt to be more constructive than simply criticizing the outdated theories and ideas in the paper.
This review can be summarized rather simply but its content gets quite complex. Ulijaszek and Lofink have organized a good review of most of the prevailing ideas about the biology, epidemiology and evolution of obesity. Rather typically this review begins be sounding the alarm in regards to the obesity epidemic and the force and swiftness in which it is sweeping both the developed and developing world. Unfortunately this alarm now seems to have been muted some because of the prevalence with which it is used to begin any obesity paper.
First the article does acknowledge the fundamental flaw in the way the developed world measures obesity. But simply admitting this and then proceeding like it is not influencing the way we study obesity is very dangerous. BMI is weight over height squared. With this measurement, favoured because of its simplicity and applicability, the fatness of an individual in almost every conceivable way is mismeasured. BMI does account for gender, males and females put on weight differently, have different metabolisms and have fat tissue that is active in different ways. It does not adjust for age, very important when considering that muscle skews the measurement upward because it weighs more than fat, nor fitness level. It does not account for bone or muscle density as well as water retention. You would be hard-pressed to identify very many professional athletes outside of billiard champions that would not be obese as measured by BMI- this system is a big problem and deserves more attention as a real issue in a real discussion about obesity.
The discussion then shifts and the authors take a position that humans have developed a propensity for obesity through the selection of genes throughout our and our ancestors’ history that would increase our ability to store fat. This discussion included some interesting ideas about encephalization being man-kinds defining character; that our brains are metabolically hungry; and that they demand a significant reserve of fat on our bodies so it may function in times of famine.
The story then shifts again quite drastically to summarize the current ideas about the genetics of obesity and the specific proteins spit out by these genes that could be affecting how we perceive food and our appetites, and our ability to use the energy we consume.
The authors finally comment on the culture of obesity in the modern context and tackle issues of food security and inequality of access; our increasingly sedentary lifestyle; and issues surrounding the perceived attractiveness of overweight individuals. A point that was made early and often in this section was the inevitability of obesity considering modern technology and lifestyle. This is interesting, and worth discussion.
So is obesity inevitable? Is it like global warming, in that the relentless march of civilization forward may leave in its wake a couple unintended outcomes. Moreover, it is also similar to global warming in that ‘we’ don’t like the fact that we are globally packing on the pounds, but ‘we’ are unwilling to sacrifice any of the luxuries that are at the cause. Increasing evidence is suggesting that now that women make up a significant proportion of the workforce, parents generally have less time to prepare food and thus tend to serve their children more processed, less nutritional food. Does that mean we should tackle the problem of women in the workforce? I think it is incredibly naïve to think that in our growing attempt at sophistication of culture and sensibilities that there will be no negative side-affects. Video games have a price- they allow kids to spend their leisure time not moving anything other than electricity in their bodies and muscles in their thumbs. But kids can be distracted so parents can finish their work and technology can move forward.
The approach of this article is far too heavy on the biology and far less thorough on the culture. Their treatment of the biological aspects was quite comprehensive save any discussion about environmental affects regarding our fattening communities. There is good evidence now that toxins in the air and in our food could be, what are referred to as in the literature, obesogens. These toxins are also postulated to be actively modulating the function of certain hormones and thus the homeostatic environment in our bodies.
Some of the real interesting theories that have emerged since the publication of this article focus more upon how we now live and how our culture is contributing to obesity. There are quite compelling papers now in regards to sleep deprivation and obesity; the fact that more people have heating and air-conditioning so they don’t spend the calories cooling off or heating up, and that less people are smoking cigarettes. What strikes me again, is the alternative. Should we be sleeping more and taking less care of our kids, should we be depriving families of heating and cooling and should we dismantle every campaign against smoking?
The answer lies not in undoing the causes of obesity but in coming up with novel solutions to the problem. The answer, like that of global warming, is not to stop progress but to be smart about it.