Weighty issues, part 2

December 20, 2013 by  
Filed under Obesity

Welcome to part two of a discussion about issues related to body weight. Last week we addressed the concept of “nature” – that our body weight is genetically predetermined and biologically controlled. While there is strong evidence in favor of nature, genes are not the only determinant of body weight. If that were the case, the United States would not have experienced such a rapid rise in obesity rates over the past few decades, nor would we see such a strong geographic relationship associated with obesity. This is where “nurture” factors enter the picture.

Nurture

Nurture factors include the environment in which we are raised and the behaviors that we are taught or engage in. Take a look at the map provided by the Centers for Disease and Control in the previous post. Notice any geographic trends associated with obesity? The lowest rates of obesity are found in the Rocky Mountain region. The highest rates of obesity are found in the Midwest and Southeast. What environmental and/or social factors could explain these phenomena?

It could be any number of things. A partial list of nurture factors includes altitude, terrain, climate, food culture, activity culture, access to healthy food, prevalence of fast food restaurants or vending machines in schools, urban vs. rural lifestyles, crime rates, bike lanes, access to gyms and recreation facilities, parks and open space, etc. The strongest nurture factor related to obesity is socioeconomic status (SES), which is comprised of a person’s or population’s occupation, education, and income level.

Sociologists often use SES as a means of predicting behavior. In the case of overweight and obesity, a lower SES may be associated with behaviors like overeating and/or physical inactivity. However, it’s important to understand that adoption of these behaviors is often by need, not by choice. For instance, if a person works multiple jobs to make ends meet, they are less likely to have time to exercise or prepare their own food. They are also less likely to be able to afford running shoes or gym memberships. And, ironically, food that costs less is often higher in calories, fat, and sugar.

Food for thought

Next week we’ll start to look at what a person can do to maintain a healthy body weight or lose weight if necessary. But before we dive into the “ins and outs” of dieting, I wanted you to understand just how complicated and individualized body weight is. We all have different genes, live in different geographic regions, have different food and activity cultures, and come from different socioeconomic statuses. Take a moment to assess the factors that determine your body weight. Also take a moment to acknowledge that some people are more prone to weight gain than others (from both a nature and nurture perspective), and understand that what works for one person may not work for another.