Obesity: Cultural and Biocultural Perspectives

Article excerpt

Obesity: Cultural and Biocultural Perspectives

By Alexandra A. Brewis (2011)

Reviewed by Ingrid K. Adams

Obesity has been on the rise for decades, with onethird of the world's population being affected. It is projected that these numbers will increase to twothirds or more of the world's population in the near future (World Health Organization, 2011). Obesity continues to be at the forefront of federal, state, and local agendas. It demands our attention as family and consumer sciences (FCS) professionals.

In Obesity: Cultural and Biocultural Perspectives, Brewis introduces the problem of obesity and defines the concept. She raises important questions such as How is obesity defined? What constitutes an excess of fat? How much fat is too much? Answers to these questions vary across time and cultures and Brewis suggests that the use of good referents and agreed-upon standards allows for cross-cultural comparisons. In examining the obesity pandemic, she makes it clear that we must look at different factors having an impact on the issue. Some of the factors are alternative methods for estimating body fat, the medicalization of obesity, and the question of whether obesity signals poor health. Often in obesity research, only one aspect of the problem is addressed. However, Brewis uses examples from different cultures to show that human adaptation may be insufficient to explain the widespread problem of obesity. Obesity is more related to adaptations to environmental Stressors such as poverty, low socioeconomic status, and structural inequities in stratified societies. She further explains that shifts from an agricultural lifestyle with diets rich in whole grains, vegetables, and relatively lean protein to a more urban and industrialized existence characterized by highly processed food - high in sugar, saturated fat, and sodium - and an accompanying sedentary lifestyle, are among the root causes of obesity. Such nutrition transitions are evident in poorer areas in Mexico, in the Central Pacific islands - Tonga and Samoa, and other developing nations where there is a high dependence on importation of non-nutrient dense foods.

For each topic, Brewis presents a cultural perspective based on her research and that of other researchers to show how culture and biology interact. Her discussion of culture and body ideals, as well as big body symbolism, shows that obesity and body image are perceived differently across societies. Although the shift is toward more of a slim ideal, many cultures perceive the big body in a positive light and may express a preference for fuller figures indicating that the ideal body is culturally determined. …