Blog 3- obesity review

Obesity in Biocultural Perspective

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 As such I will attempt to be more constructive than simply criticizing the outdated theories and ideas in the paper.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.

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6 thoughts on “Blog 3- obesity review

  1. Hello!
    Thank you for sharing; it is very evident that you are passionate and well-versed in this topic (both past and present). I recognize that a lot of the information has changed in a relatively short period of time, but do you think that many of the ‘outdated’ discussions could be due to other aspects of the author’s approach? Were you familiar with the authors that Ulijaszek and Lofink utilize for their discussion? If so, are they a good distribution of many different studies or many different approaches, or do they focus on only one school of thought? Are the authors themselves prevalent authors within Obesity research? Perhaps these are reasons for a very narrow view or approach to their discussion? What are your thoughts?

    • Hi!
      Unfortunately I have a difficult time determining theoretical frameworks within the literature of obesity. Certainly people focus on the different aspects of the issue, ie the social, cultural, biological etc, but they mainly stick to either the study they are performing or are critically reviewing the findings of some previous studies. Methodologically there do exist preferences within the literature, some do make the mistake, in my opinion, of only using BMI to categorize obesity, and others do include other measurements of obesity such as waist circumference- but I would be hardpressed to describe that as a framework. Perhaps the best I can offer at this point is that there seems to be a stark dichotomy amoungst the authors as to whether obesity is a big problem, and certainly that slant can seep through in their writing. Thanks!

  2. Hello!
    I enjoyed your review. This is such an interesting field of study! I have a question relating to the first part of the article in which you describe the authors “sounding the alarm in terms of the obesity epidemic.” I know that there has been some questioning of the appropriateness of using the term “epidemic” to describe obesity, and I am wondering where you stand on this issue. Do you agree with the conceptualization of obesity as an epidemic?
    I am also wondering what types of cultural aspects you think the authors could have included in the article that were published at the time this review was written? What I am asking is whether the lack of discussion of cultural factors in the review is due to a lack of published material before this point or an omission on the part of the authors, and if this is the case what type of factors do you think they should have discussed?

    • Thanks for the comments, they are good ones!
      The term epidemic is troubling first because it has very negative connotations and also because it strongly suggests that obesity is a disease. At worst obesity is a secondary risk factor, which promotes more risks factors for disease; ie obesity may increase the risk in say hypertension, which in turn can increase the risk of stroke and cardio-vascular disease.
      There are many cultural issues surrounding obesity, as i intend to outline in my essay for this course. There are many consideration as to obesity and mental health, how people view obesity as an issue of morality and an issue of discipline. I wouldn’t say they neglected that type of discussion, but they could have elaborated more and connected the dots as well about the effect of culture on the perceptions of the biology of obesity.

  3. Wow, marvelous blog layout! How long have you been blogging for? you made blogging look easy. The overall look of your website is fantastic, let alone the content!

  4. Hi there,
    Looks like the spammers are still following you.

    Congrats on reading your first Reviews in Anthropology journal article…hopefully you have many more in your future 😉

    I’d be curious to see the citational history of this particular article. Do you know how to track this? (If not, let me know, and I can break down how to do this.) The reason I suggest you do this is that you can see how others, since 2006, have contrasted and engaged with this data. I would guess other have made this argument (and if not, well, then you have a pretty significant article contribution on the horizon!) But if this is a defining statement (which it is, if published in Annual Reviews), you may want to see how others have critically engaged with it.

    Regarding you suggestion that this is rather a-theoretical, let me throw a definition of theory at you: theory is the order that you put facts in (which means theory and data are always dialectically related). So, clearly, even the most empirical study is implicitly theoretical. In fact, it strikes me that you are highlighting a very particular theoretical slip in this review article. Anyone else have any thoughts on this?

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