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Western society at the present is experiencing an epidemic of obesity where the poor, for the first time in history, are proportionately the most obese sector of the population. Evidence of this can be seen in the work of Cloake (2013) wherein his study shows that “nearly 33% of adults within the U.S. and the U.K. are obese with nearly 90% of those cases attributed to individuals with low incomes” (Cloake, 2013, pp. 24).
The main problem is that on average there are “nearly 300,000 deaths a year from obesity related illnesses resulting in billions of dollars spent on health problems such as high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure etc” (Cloake, 2013, pp. 24). This is a surprising concept given that excess body weight and fat is normally connected with the excessive eating habits of the rich.
The problem with obesity among the poor has reached a point that international popular culture representations of Western society have depicted an unflattering image of its poor population as being “a culture for the morbidly obese with cartoonish representations often showing an obese man using a tiny scooter in order to line up at the nearest McDonald’s” (Menifield, Doty & Fletcher 2008, pp. 83-88).
Unfortunately, this representation of Western people is closer to the truth than most people realize. Junk food is the primary contributor to the obesity problem due its convenience and prevalence which has resulted in the current obesity problem that Western society now faces.
Education and Obesity
Habits developed early on in childhood have been shown to carry well into adulthood. As such, children who are currently overweight and have no educational awareness regarding their current health problems will be at risk for obesity as they grow older (Datar & Nicosia 2012, pp. 312-337). Long term studies such as those by Yaniv, Rosin & Tobol (2009) which looked at the factors related to obesity as children grew into adulthood noted that “the education of children and parents regarding the consumption of proper foods (i.e. no junk food) contributed greatly to lower rates of obesity among those that were more aware.
In such cases, it was noted that the middle and upper class were less likely to develop cases of obesity as compared to the lower class due to the awareness of parents regarding the problems inherent in junk food consumption resulting in them feeding their children healthier options” (Yaniv, Rosin & Tobol 2009, pp. 823-830).
What the Yaniv, Rosin & Tobol (2009) reveals is that education played an important role in determining rates of obesity with awareness equating into a lower likelihood of junk food consumption as parents sought better and less fattening options for their children. Among those that have had the opportunity to learn proper eating habits through educational programs and proper schooling, it is often the case that they actively avoid junk foods and seek out healthier options when it comes to what they eat (Cale & Harris 2013, pp. 433-452).
On the other hand, “people who do not know any better, usually the uneducated poor, often consume junk food and eat more than what they actually need” (Cale & Harris 2013, pp. 433). The problem with junk food is that due to their convenience and serving size most people are not aware that on average they consume more than 3,000 calories a day from the various forms of junk food they eat (Devaux et al. 2011, pp. 121-159).
An average adult male in the U.S. and the U.K. should consume only 65 grams of fat and 2,500 calories in a single day yet a burger and fries combo meal with a large coke available at the local McDonald’s is equivalent to more than 50 grams of fat and 1500 calories within a single sitting (Cale & Harris 2013, pp. 433-452).
As explained by Devaux et al. (2011), this would not be a problem should that be the only large meal that an average person would eat throughout the day, however, “this meal is supplemented by various chips, sodas and various other unhealthy options throughout the day which brings the total calorie count to 4,000 calories or more” ((Devaux et al. 2011, pp. 121).
With diets often exceeding the daily allotted calories needed by the body, this results in a large proportion of the consumed calories to be turned into fat resulting in a person become obese over an extended period of time as they continue to consume more junk food.
Money and Junk Food
Through the study of Datar and Nicosia (2012) which examined the food choice predilections of the poor, the middle class and the upper class, it was seen that the junk food, in the form of burgers, fries, shakes and other such types of food constituted a higher percentage of daily meals of the poor as compared to the upper and middle class.
The main problem lies in the fact that the poor often have no choice but to eat junk food such as burgers and fries since it is the cheapest and most affordable choice that they can obtain (Datar & Nicosia 2012, pp. 312-337). Healthy food that contains an appropriate amount of protein, carbohydrates and vitamins that is prepared within a restaurant is often quite expensive and out of the reach of the urban poor.
Not only that, the preparation time and the effort necessary to cook vegetables and other nutritious forms of food at home increases the appeal of junk food since it comes already cooked and ready for consumption (Datar & Nicosia 2012, pp. 312-337).
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On the other end of the spectrum, the middle and upper class can afford a more diverse diet with healthier options and less fat resulting in lower rates of obesity for this particular segment of the population (Magid 2011, p. 13). Based on this, it can be seen that there is a distinct correlation between income levels and the prevalence of obesity in certain sectors of the population.
Obesity and Popular Culture
Studies such as those by Wallis (2004) have shown that obesity among the poor is not only caused by a lack of education and low levels of monetary income but also by popular culture influences through the media. On average nearly 10,000 TV ads appear within a given year which focus on promoting the products of various restaurants and companies.
Children in particular are targeted by fancy commercials advertising sugary sweets through the use of cleverly crafted cartoonish elements in the commercial itself. Wallis (2004) in his study shows that the poor, more so than the upper and middle class rely on television as their primary source of entertain.
This is related to the lack of substantial levels of income for the poor that was mentioned earlier which results in limited options for entertainment. Since TV advertisements are an extension of popular culture it can be seen that popular culture is one of the primary reasons behind the obesity problem America now faces due to this patronage of products that are not only unhealthy but cause people to become obese as a result of their consumption (Wallis 2004, pp. 78-89).
The power of advertising should not be underestimated since it has been shown that TV ads are one of the best ways to convince people to buy a certain product (Moodie et al. 2006, pp. 133-138). From this it can be seen that the causes behind obesity is not merely the fast food culture that western society find itself in but also the actions of various corporations that promote with wild abandon their products without taking into consideration the possible ramification on the population (Obesity in America: What’s driving the epidemic? 2012, p. 5).
Obesity in Saudi Arabia
When examining the case of Saudi Arabia there are two unique points of interest: the first is that country has only a few fast food establishments and the culture of consuming junk has yet to become prevalent, however, Saudi Arabia also happens to have one of the highest rates of obesity in the world with nearly 25% of the population being obese (Al-Rethaiaa, Fahmy, & Al-Shwaiyat 2010, pp. 39-48).
Based on an examination of the work of Al-Rethaiaa, Fahmy, & Al-Shwaiyat (2010), the main source of obesity in the country was linked to its high rates of diabetes which was connected to the popularity of the consumption of sweet dates, high carbohydrate foods as well as the general lack of physical exercise most people get.
Such a problem, as explained by Al-Rethaiaa, Fahmy, & Al-Shwaiyat (2010), is due to the lack of education among the general population regarding the necessity of proper eating habits in order to prevent one’s self from getting fat.
In conclusion, it can be stated that education and income have a direct impact on the likelihood of a person becoming obese. With lower income levels an individuals food choices become limited which, when combined with low levels of awareness as a result of a lack of education, leads a person to make unhealthy food choices in life.
Combined with the effect of popular culture through the media, this paper has proven that in order to avoid become obese it is necessary to both educate the poor regarding the foods they eat as well as provide a means for them to make healthier food choices.
Al-Rethaiaa, A. S., Fahmy, A. A., & Al-Shwaiyat, N. M. (2010) Obesity and eating habits among college students in Saudi Arabia: a cross sectional study. Nutrition Journal, pp. 939-48.
Cale, L. (2013) Every child (of every size) matters’ in physical education! Physical education’s role in childhood obesity. Sport, Education & Society, 18 (4), pp. 433-452.
Cloake, F. (2013) Our big fat fear. New Statesman, 142(5158), pp. 24-28.
Datar, A., & Nicosia, N. (2012) Junk Food in Schools and Childhood Obesity. Journal Of Policy Analysis & Management, 31(2), pp. 312-337.
Devaux, M., Sassi, F., Church, J., Cecchini, M., & Borgonovi, F. (2011) Exploring the Relationship Between Education and Obesity. OECD Journal: Economic Studies, (1), pp. 121-159.
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Moodie, R., Swinburn, B., Richardson, J., & Somaini, B. (2006) Childhood obesity – a sign of commercial success, but a market failure. International Journal Of Pediatric Obesity, 1 (3), pp. 133-138.
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Yaniv, G., Rosin, O., & Tobol, Y. (2009) Junk-food, home cooking, physical activity and obesity: The effect of the fat tax and the thin subsidy. Journal Of Public Economics, 93(5/6), pp. 823-830.