All social groups equally affected by obesity epidemic
14 November 2012
A new Sweden study shows that obesity is increasing across all
social groups and that we need to look at factors other than
socioeconomic status to understand and solve one of the major public
health concerns of the Western world.
Åsa Ljungvall, a researcher in economics at the Lund University
School of Economics and Management, has studied the increase in
numbers of people who are overweight or obese over recent decades in
Sweden and the US.
It is often assumed that those on low incomes and with low levels
of education are overly represented in the major increase in obesity
of recent decades.
“My studies show that the increase in the problem of obesity is
taking place across a broad front in all socioeconomic groups. So
even if there are differences between different levels of education
and income, people are affected fairly evenly by the increase —
sometimes even in ways that reduce inequality between the groups.
The obesity epidemic is taking place independently of socioeconomic
status and affects people more equally than we have previously
thought”, added Ljungvall.
Even if the average waist measurement of a Swede is less than
that of an average American, Ljungvall’s comparative studies
“We are seeing the same tendency in Sweden as in the US, where
the increases in obesity, severe obesity and BMI since 1960 are very
similar for groups with different levels of education and income,”
he said. “As we are seeing major increases in all socioeconomic
groups, it is perhaps not related to the fact that we don’t know any
better or cannot afford to do otherwise. There is something else
that affects our behaviour more.”
So why have we become larger and what can be done about the
problem? In Ljungvall’s view, we need to look at something other
than socioeconomic factors like education and income to understand
and solve one of the major public health problems of the Western
world. It is important to keep the distribution of the problem in
mind when discussing causes and possible solutions.
At the same time as the major rise in obesity, we have
experienced rapid economic and technological development, which is
likely to have influenced what choices we make with regard to diet
and physical activity. These changes seem to have entailed
difficulties in maintaining a healthy lifestyle and weight.
“How are we affected by factors such as quality and quantity of
available food and drink, stress and uncertainty, opportunities for
daily exercise, marketing and information? Factors such as these
affect how difficult it is for people to make the ‘right’ choices
and create good habits and norms,” concluded Ljungvall.