The Psychology of Obesity
Obesity is a significant public health problem. Due to negative nutritional habits, a lack of exercise and a greater proclivity toward lifestyle decisions which expose individuals to lesser physical activity, America is suffering an obesity epidemic with extensive implications to its national well-being. Obesity is proven to have a direct link to heart disease, high blood pressure and certain types of diabetes according to the Centers for Disease Control. (CDC1,1) The strains on the individual's health that are prompted by obesity can significantly reduce treatment options for these consequences while simultaneously increasing the individual's likelihood for premature mortality. These effects intercede with a disturbing set of indicators as to the increasing psychological propensity of individuals, families and especially toward behavior which is conducive to obesity. The wide permeation of the obesity problem in American is a product of psychological conditioning resulting from a combination of negative social and familial habits relating to both nutrition and exercise.
The research conducted for this account is driven by the following research question:
What are the prevailing social conditions and familial habits which result in a psychological conditioning rendering children vulnerable to obesity?
In the literature review to follow, the selection and analysis of sources is underscored by the knowledge that obesity and its correlated effects may be linked to such broad sociological effects as reduced overall productivity, increased medical liability, shorter life-expectancy and a worsening set of economic consequences in succeeding generations of Americans. (Finkelstein et al., 219) In fact, according to a 2003 project informed by the International Obesity Task Force, we "could see obesity levels soar up to 40 per cent or higher within a single generation unless urgent action is taken." (NA, 1) The succeeding literature review is dedicated to uncovering the conditions contributing to obesity. This investigation is centered on the task of better illuminating the psychological roots of the current childhood obesity epidemic by identifying public consumer behaviors and family habits as the main culprits for what has become a significant public health problem.
Research denotes that one of the primary causes of obesity is a permeation of sedentary behavior in an individual's lifestyle. Often as individual's grow older, and their increased responsibilities dominate their schedules, there is little time allotted to physical activity. This is a directly contributory factor to heart disease, diabetes and hypertension. In order to combat what is clearly a national health priority, with the American Heart Association reporting roughly half a million deaths annually due to heart disease, it is crucial that we work to implant strong values geared toward a regular institution of vigorous physical activity in the daily routine. (AHA, 1) This must be done in public settings and through community interventions. The research aim here will be to identify the targets of such intervention as the schools, parents and mass media sources that encourage unhealthy lifestyle decisions.
Perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of the obesity plague is that it presents us with a problem which is socially self-perpetuating. In many cases, parents play a leading role in enabling and enforcing negative eating habits in the fragile developmental psyche of a child. This is supported by Gaynon (2002), who denotes that "classical psychology points toward early childhood diet as a prominent factor in the development of obesity, specifically the transitional period when infants are weaned from milk to solid food. Psychologists have found dietary habits learned early on can have a strong effect on adult eating patterns and, consequently, the probability of becoming overweight or obese." (Gaynon, 1) This indicates that early allowance of negative dietary habits is likely to have damning effects on a child's future psychological relationship with consumption. Most Americans,...
It falls upon the family to promote positive nutritional habits and physical activeness, according to 79% of parents surveyed. (Ofcom, 1.3) In a discussion on who is to blame for the psychological patterns discussed above, it becomes increasingly clear that parental shortcomings are a major factor.
And as such, where there is obesity in children, it is not uncommon to find obesity in parents. In addition to the reality that obesity is sometimes inherited, so are the behaviors which produce it. Parents who are not conscious of the nutritional distinctions separating types of foods or the values of regular physical activity are likely to raise children who are thusly inclined and who are also chained to a negative psychological pattern.
Interestingly, the Office of Communications source reports, even some parents who do not necessarily expose themselves to negative nutritional habits are finding themselves more inclined by mere convenience and expedience to expose their children to negative eating and lifestyle habits. Again, this is a claim which reinforces the argument that parents are at the root of normalizing negative behaviors. As the literature review shows, for many parents under the stress of work and bills, it may simply seem that there is not enough time to oversee their children's physical activities or the balance of their regular diet. This turns the attention of our research toward some connection between parents, schools and communities where physical activity and nutrition are concerned.
Accordingly, the governmental Office of Communications indicates that "lifestyle trends (rising incomes, longer working hours, more working mothers, time-poor/cash-rich parents) tend to support a 'convenience food culture' and the increased consumption" of foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar. (Ofcom, 1.1) Fast-food, processed food and other such nutritional options which are typically high in preservatives and low in vitamins are favored by many parents who must face rigorous working schedules in addition to their duties as parents. Naturally, an increase in the commonality of two working-parent homes, as well as in homes with single parents, constitutes a significant decline in the time which parents have at their disposal to prepare and serve their children. More often than not, the offshoot of this scarcity of time is the appeal to methods of convenience and simplicity, with nutrition being a secondary concern when feeding children. For parents and children alike there becomes a combined psychological dependency on this type of eating orientation that results from the negative cycle of obesity and low self-image. According to Gaynon, "low self-esteem and the depression that inevitably accompanies it have a reciprocal relationship with obesity; each factor appears to cause the other to intensify, and the continuing cycle can begin at any stage in life. Being overweight as a young child has been marked as a strong predictor of adulthood corpulence." (Gaynon, 1)
With much of the focus on negative parental behavior, it is important to acknowledge that there are also broad social and cultural factors in place which make parents more vulnerable to ignorance or disinterest where nutrition is concerned. 3
Reinforced by the figure that the consumer demand for ready-made foods increased by 44% from 1990-2002, it is clear that as a whole, these salt and fat concentrated food products have grown in consumption at a time when obesity has also proliferated significantly. (Ofcom, 1.1) This suggests that obesity is produced in at least part by the decline in sheer health quality of the food which individuals are choosing or finding themselves able to eat.
From a psychological perspective, we are inclined to look to the manner in which families and lifestyles are impacted by culture and social convention. Indeed, the prevalence of childhood obesity does point to a pattern which exists across the larger nation as a reflection of the eating behaviors of families. Eating behaviors that are heavy in the types of items which contribute to obesity follow a broad social pattern. Significant portions of this neative consumption may be characterized as that which parents tend to feed their children, with the study here revealing that much of that which is selected comes from one of several distinct categories of unhealthy eating. Labeling these "The Big Five," the statistics cited by the Office of Communications indicate that the health of our children has been negatively impacted by dietary practices comprised mainly of "confectionery, soft drinks, crisps and savory snacks, fast food and pre-sugared breakfast cereals." (Ofcom, 1.2) These foods taken together promote eating habits which are low in protein and vitamins, and instead made from artificial ingredients and dangerously high in saturated fat. This diet also comes at the cost of consuming nutritional foods, with most children in countries like the United States and Great Britain approaching only half the recommended five fresh fruit servings a week. There is a perspective that expedience and affordability are the deciding factors where feeding children is concerned, with the processed and unhealthful options present throughout the mainstream shopping venues presenting myriad easy ways to prepare meals which bypass nutrition in favor of convenience. It is also the case that many healthier options are pointedly more expensive, driving consumers to overlook their benefits in favor of…
" (Dietz, 1998). Obese children are often taller than their non-overweight peers, and are apt to be viewed as more mature. This is an inappropriate expectation that may result in adverse effects on their socialization. (Dietz, 1998). Overweight children and adolescents report negative assumptions made about them by others, including being inactive or lazy, being strong or tougher than others, not having feelings and being unclean. (American Obesity Association, 2000). This
197). Further, Robinson and Sirard posit that applying a "Litmus Test" helps to identify the specific research questions, study designs, and methods that will most likely contribute to improving individual and overall population health (198). The researchers suggest that a study should only be performed if the researcher(s) knows what the conclusion from each possible result (negative, null, positive) will be, and how the result will incline intervention to address
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