UnBooks:Stupid Fat People
Obesity has long been a problem in the United States. Over the last 20 years, the issue has slowly grown from a whisper to a shout, with obesity rates increasing from under 10% to over 30% nationwide (CDC). The causes are fairly well established in most cases: poor diet and lack of exercise. However, given the widespread publication of this knowledge, why have obesity rates continued to dramatically increase? What factors contribute to this spreading epidemic? I posit that one of these factors is education. The less education a person has, the more likely they are to be affected by obesity.
Health Class Ain’t Cutting The Cheese
Between 1976 and 1991, fast-food advertising changed from being food-centric to creating a family-friendly perspective and encouraging super-sizing of meals. The low prices and convenience of fast food versus fresh fruits and vegetables combined with the decrease in physical activity that the computer age brought on both contributed to a rapid and dramatic increase in obesity from 1991 to 2011.
However, this is all very well documented, very much public knowledge. Supposedly, the majority of people know that obesity is not a good thing. Therefore, there must be some reason people continue to eat copious amounts of junk food and neglect to exercise. Education is one of the most likely factors, so let’s look at several studies that back this up.
What Britain says...
Our first source comes from across the pond in Great Britain. The study was done by two scientists from the Department of Paediatric Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Institute of Child Health in London and one from the Department of Statistics at the School of Public Health and Community Medicine in Jerusalem. They performed a longitudinal study of a 1958 British Cohort to study the effects of socioeconomic status and education at different ages on adult obesity. Over the course of thirty-three years, eleven thousand men and women were tracked and measured at intervals of 7, 11, 16, 23, and 33 years. They found that social class at age 7 is a major indicator of adult obesity – this will be important later. The good doctors also found that for every decrease in educational qualification level, from college-educated down to entirely uneducated, the prevalence of obesity rose 30-35%. That’s quite a significant increase, and given the similarities in culture between the US and the UK, the implications are obvious. Some sort of connection lies between education and obesity, but what? Let’s look further.
What Finland says...
Our second source comes from the lovely forested land of Finland, where a number of Finnish scientists from the National Institute for Health and Welfare, the Finnish Heart Association, and the Obesity Research Unit at Helsinki University Hospital have conducted a study based on cross-sectional nationally-representative samples. Their goal was to find the changes in the prevalence of obesity over twenty years among approximately eight thousand adults. They found that obesity rates rose quite prominently, the highest rates being among women and the least-educated subjects. Based on their results, the writers recommended a nation-wide comprehensive public health program to combat the obesity epidemic. This would indicate that enhancing the educational system with better health information could help younger generations stay fit.
What Greece says...
Our third source hails from historic Greece in the beautiful Mediterranean. Six doctors from the Hellenic Medical Association for Obesity in Athens performed a study on the effects of marital status and educational level on obesity in adults. After studying sixteen thousand participants, they found that marriage significantly affects obesity levels, and that education level in women dramatically decreased the odds of obesity at higher levels. While they did not find this in men, they stated that many other studies had found significant effects in both sexes. This further establishes education as a factor in obesity rates.
What America says...
Finally, our fourth source hails from the good ol’ US of A. Six more researchers at the Carolina Population Center and Department of Nutrition and Biostatistics carried out a revolutionary study separating youth into five classes of socioeconomic status (SES): Persistent Disadvantage, Disadvantaged Fast Starters, Material Advantage, Educational Advantage, and Highest Overall Advantage. Each of these classes takes a different background into account, from uneducated single mother households to the very wealthy. Social factors such as Little League participation, rather than just parental income, are used to help classify the data more accurately. With this, they found that compared to the old Social Mobility model, where classes were divided into Stable Low SES, Upwardly Mobile, Downwardly Mobile, and Stable High SES, a much clearer picture of obesity trends was seen. In the old model, the obesity rates fluctuated down then up again, but in the new model, there is a consistent downward trend from Disadvantaged Fast Starters to Highest Overall Advantage. The exception lies in the Persistent Disadvantage group, where obesity rates were significantly lower than the next highest group. This is attributed to a lack of enough food to become obese in most cases, as the caregiver is generally a single mother working at most part-time.
Remember when I said that little fact a few pages back was important? This is why. As shown in the first study, early socioeconomic status has a profound effect on obesity rates. This is very likely due to the much lower rate of high school graduation and college attendance of those from a disadvantaged background, versus those of wealthy means, to whom college attendance is virtually guaranteed.
So does education have an effect on obesity? Yes. As I just stated, early socioeconomic status can have a significant impact on future education levels, but that doesn’t mean education is just a circumstantial indicator. Rather, it means that it can be a tool. Since the people most at risk for obesity aren’t finishing high school, why are our health and wellness classes all concentrated there? Wouldn’t a better solution be to educate kids about proper diet and exercise earlier, beyond just food pyramid stuff? America is slowly starting to respond to this, with one notable incident being the transition of cookie monster from cookies to vegetables. Salads are making their foray into fast food, and exhibits like The Human Body are making people more aware of what’s going on inside them. However, obesity rates continue to rise regardless, and unless something is done at an early stage in development, it appears that they will continue to do so.