Tag Archives: obesity

Gendering responsibility for child obesity

The Daily Mail’s recent article ‘Has feminism killed the art of home cooking?’ serves as an example of the mediated discourses which hold feminist values and therefore women, as responsible for the so-called child obesity epidemic (WHO, 2010). The argument centers on three discourses – morality, science and gender.

In contemporary societies the responsibility for health is increasingly that of the individual (Petersen 1997). That is, we are held morally responsible for the quality and quantity of food that passes our lips, the amount of exercise we take and so on. So weight gain is presumed to be a result of health-defeating practices. However unlike adults, children are clearly not able to self-regulate and manage their own health because children cannot be responsible for food production and consumption themselves. That responsibility, it is argued, resides with parents and specifically with mothers. Drawing on natural science discourses, advocates of this position argue that due to biology ‘women possess a greater nurturing instinct than men’. Therefore mothers are presumed to have primary responsibility for their children’s health. If children are overweight it is mothers and not fathers who are held accountable.

Maher, Fraser and Wright’s (2010) research on media representations of mothers has identified two ways in which they are held accountable. The first, like the Daily Mail, points to the increasing absence of the family meal. It suggests that if women didn’t follow feminist values and work so long or so hard, then they would have more time to spend at home creating nutritious meals. It is their absence from the home that is blamed as the reason children eat at junk food outlets far too often, survive on processed meals and eat too many snack foods. The second way mothers are held accountable is through pregnancy. Scientists argue that ‘diet, exercise and women’s attentiveness before and during pregnancy are linked to specific disabilities, to childhood health generally and, more recently, to childhood obesity’ (Maher, Fraser and Wright, 2010).

It is these mediated discourses that hold mothers specifically responsible for the battle of the bulge, but more generally they argue ‘it’s feminism we have to thank for the spread of fast-food chains and an epidemic of childhood obesity.’

Has feminism killed the art of home cooking?

Is it really women’s fault our kids are fat?

WHO – Obesity and overweight

Obesity

“Junk” Science? The Psychology of the Soda Tax

Over here in the States the debate is raging about how to pay for healthcare overhaul. And, here in New York, one suggestion to generate revenue is to implement a “soda tax” on sugary beverages. New York governor (for now) David Patterson has proposed a soda tax and a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine backs him up. The study argues that a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages would simultaneously raise revenue and reduce consumption. They compare the tax and its projected impact to a tax on tobacco which has had such results. The beverage industry, however, counters that the two indulgences are not comparable. Both sides have their advocates and talking points, but what can psychology tell us about why soda taxes and other taxes aimed at “junk food” can be effective?

Behavioral economics (BE) is a fascinating field that blends psychology and economics to explain human consumer behavior and suggest ways of encouraging consumers to make better choices. It has gained particular prominence in understanding how individuals approach their retirement savings. Many in the field assume that individuals operate from a stance of “bounded rationality” — meaning we “make biased decisions that sometimes run counter to [our] best interests” (see this article for more information). With regard to the soda tax a basic argument from the BE standpoint would be:

  1. we humans love sugar –>
  2. sugar contributes greatly to obesity –>
  3. we have an obesity epidemic –>
  4. therefore we should reduce consumption of sugar –>
  5. we like sugar too much to make the right choice based purely on health reasons –>
  6. but if you hit us in our pockets we’ll reduce our consumption –>
  7. therefore the overall consumption of sugary drinks will decrease –>
  8. this will open the market up for other types of drinks to be more readily available –>
  9. as these drinks gain more market share our dependence on soda will decrease and we’ll “naturally” change our behavior to consume more healthy alternatives –>
  10. sugar consumption will decrease –>
  11. rates of obesity will likewise decrease –>
  12. healthcare costs associated with obesity will decrease.

You got that? At each little point of that equation there are of course many variables that can correlate, conflate, confound, and moderate the outcomes, but this is the general idea and essentially what was found with tobacco consumption. (If you want to know more about the research behind each step the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University has tons of information here.) A review of relevant articles and their key points is available here. One interesting point that has been brought up that extends beyond the realm of individual behavior is the notion of “shared economic consequences” in which the mass consumption of sugary beverages contributes greatly to the obesity epidemic and we all share the burden of this through elevated healthcare costs. The field of BE and the current legislation efforts show how influencing health-related public policy is more complicated than just providing information on healthy behaviors. It also shows how simple choices (such as drinking soda vs. water) — when scaled to the level of a population — have drastic economic ramifications.

Sidenote, while researching for this article I came across an alternative method of behavioral modification…your own personal 5 lb glob of fat (“My Pet Fat”) that you can place near your junk food to deter you from eating it. Just had to share.

“Soda Tax could shake up industry” on NPR.

Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity section on Soda Tax

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Rising waistlines, falling grades?

By Erica Zaiser

The BBC reported on a recent survey by the British Heart Foundation which found that most parents in the UK vastly overestimate the amount of exercise their children are getting. While 72% of parents believe that their children are getting enough exercise, according to the survey, only one in ten children actually get the recommended amount of exercise per day.  As more children begin to suffer the ill effects of not exercising and because obesity in children is on the rise, there is added urgency to understand how weight impacts the lives of children.

A recent study by Clark, Slate, and Viglietti (2009), found that children who were severely overweight had significantly worse marks in all subjects than students who were not obese.  The same was seen with standardized test scores and was found even when controlling for economic status or student conduct. However, the results were only found among white students; weight was not significantly correlated with grades for students in other ethnic categories. The authors caution that much more research should be done as their sample was somewhat limited and that people should be careful of studies looking at weight categories because many children go through growth-spurts at different times. Furthermore, it is important to remember that their research only showed that weight and academic performance were correlated. It is impossible to say that obesity causes low grades when it could very well be the other way around or other factors may influence both grades and weight.

Regardless, the study is interesting because it highlights that the issue of obesity may be worrisome not just because of its ill effects on physical health. Children who are overweight might suffer from low self-esteem or become victims of bullying or social exclusion, all of which could impact their physical and mental health. There are still a number of questions that social psychologists could help answer: Why does obesity negatively correlate with academic success? Do teachers treat obese children differently than non-obese children? Or, are children who are suffering academically less likely to exercise and eat a proper diet?

Read more: David Clark, D., Slate, J. R., & Vigliett, G. C. (2009). Children’s Weight and Academic Performance in Elementary School: Cause for Concern?. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy. 9, 1, 185-204.

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Help our overweight children

childhood-obesity-by-joe-huObesity has been rated as the No.1 health problem for American children, according to a 2009 poll conducted by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Up to one out of every five children in the U.S. is overweight or obese, and this number is continuing to grow. Obesity places children at risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes later in life. The overweight children are also more prone to be depressed, anxious, and withdrawn, and report low self-esteem.

Children become overweight and obese for a variety of reasons. The most common causes are genetic factors, lack of physical activity, unhealthy eating patterns, or a combination of these factors. For example, psychologists explain that a combination of environmental pressures (e.g., parental concerns about children’s safety), technological factors (e.g., labor-saving devices such as cars), and societal transitions from childhood to adulthood are likely to increase sedentary behaviors, which usually coexist with eating, resulting in weight gain in children (Hills et al., 2007).

Although factors associated with and possible causes of obesity are complex, a child’s total diet and activity level play an important role in determining a child’s weight. Today, many children spend a lot time being inactive. For example, the average child spends approximately 4 hours each day watching television. As computers and video games become increasingly popular, the number of hours of inactivity may increase. Reducing the prevalence of childhood obesity is a public health challenge, and schools and parents have the potential to play a powerful role in diminishing this serious health crisis.

square-eyeObesity Is Biggest Health Problem for Kids (WebMD News)

square-eyeCrothers, L.M., Kehle, T. J., Bray, M. A., & Theodore, L. A. (2009). Correlates and suspected causes of obesity in children.

square-eyeTheodore, L. A., Bray, M.A., & Kehle, T.J. (2009). Introduction to the special issue: Childhood obesity.