Obesity is not just an epidemic – it may even be contagious.
The prevailing view among doctors is that the rise in obesity rates in the industrialized world are caused by lifestyle devoid of physical activity and overeating, especially of fast food.
However, a new British study published in September 2008 working paper of the Ministry for Economic Research, offers a different perspective on the phenomenon of obesity.
Instead of explaining the obesity rates of immigrants in physiological, it offers a sociological explanation. The research shows that the subconscious, dealing with social pressure, is responsible for the expanding waistline in individuals of the society. According to the research findings, the individuals are significantly affected by their environment and gain weight because the number of fat people around them is growing.
A large scale study conducted by Professor David Blnz’flauar of the monetary policy committee of the Bank of England, and Professor Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick, England, during which 30,000 people from 29 European countries were examined, over a period of fifty years.
Research has shown that obesity can move in as the “virus” of society. The researchers explain that it is easier to be obese in an obese society. They call this phenomenon “Mockingbird Obesity” (imitative obesity).
The number of obese people in the UK has risen sharply since the sixties. Whereas – 1980, 6% of men and 8% of women in England were obese, twenty years later, 22% of men and 23% of women were obese. At least 11 million women and 9 million men in the UK are now in a state of overweight, while 12 million are in clinical obesity. If this trend continues, by 2020 there will be one-third of adults and half of children in England who will be obese.
“Caloric intake has increased, but it does not explain why people eat more,” says Prof. Oswald, adding: There are those who argue that obesity is caused by the fact that food is cheaper, but if obesity is a reaction to larger purchase abilities, why is it that we regularly see that rich people are thinner than the average poor?
The researchers relied on studies from 1958, which examined the level of satisfaction of people in relation to their body mass index. They found a link between well-being and body mass index: People who considered themselves obese tended to be less happy.
In addition, the researchers found, that the self-image of obese people is heavily influenced by the weight of those around them. The more obese people competing against them for jobs, status or mates, the less they consider themselves as obese. In other words, the answer to the question of who is a overweight or obese is derived from the social norm.
When people are worried about their relative weight, they may develop a form of imitative obesity, which means people will try, unconsciously, to keep up with the weight of the environment that surrounds them.
Therefore, it seems that the phenomenon of obesity has normative social influence: Individuals in society gain weight also because it is the accepted norm in that society.