Here in the U.S., we are obsessed with weight. It’s hard to even go one day without seeing an advertisement for the latest diet or a news story about a celebrity who shed some pounds or put on a few too many. While this obsession is due in part to our focus on physical appearance, many of us link obesity with poor health outcomes, including death. However, a recent social epidemiological study highlighted in Miller-McCune examined the factors that lead to early death; and obesity did not make the list. Instead, those eager to prevent early death should avoid cigarettes, sedentary lifestyles, and even living in poverty.
This does not mean the lead author of the aforementioned study, Paula Lantz, is proposing we all relax and pig out. The University of Michigan social epidemiologist fully recognizes obesity as a national health problem. But her research suggests our current focus on weight is a bit (ahem) narrow and at least somewhat misleading.
Instead, we should look to what causes and exacerbates obesity, such as sugary sodas and our reliance on cars. And, while personal choices factor in, social class also plays a role.
It’s hard to take personal responsibility if you don’t have the money to join a gym and you have no access to healthy food in your immediate neighborhood. The place where you can get the most calories for the least money is McDonald’s. Their food is dirt cheap on a per-calorie basis.
In other words, being poor is hazardous to your health.
Stress processes probably play a role. Chronic stress is not good for immune function. [Difficulties with] housing, transportation, income security — all those factors can produce stress. Do you have friends and family — people who can actually help you get to the doctor? Is your community organized in such a way that it provides the resources you need?
So, while a focus on obesity is important, we should start focusing on less prominent culprits like poverty. And, in the meantime, exercise!