3/27/2014 CSOC808, Module5- Topics andLearning Objectives
Topics and Learning Objectives
Socio-economic factors involved in obesity
Competing discourses on obesity in government, fat activism, and critical sociology
Aboriginal perspectives on obesity
Weight differences in Canada by region and time period
By the end of this module, you should be able to:
Explain the terms “obesity” and “overweight” from a medical perspective
List some socio-economic contributors to overweight
Describe the role of “obesogenic environments” in overweight
Enumerate the particular challenges facing Aboriginal peoples when it comes to diet and weight
Give examples of how fat bias and discrimination may lead to health problems
Critical Perspectives in Food Studies, Chapters 12 and 13
As you may know, overweight and obese individuals have become a serious concern for public health officials
in the past deca—e enough to be labelled an “epidemic.”
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Figure 5.1: This wide chair in a hospital waiting room suggests that large bodies are becoming
more common and recognized.
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Drriad, 2007
The obesity "epidemic" is something that many of us have heard about. But the numbers may still be
surprising to you. Use your knowledge to make an educated guess in the questions below.
Test Yourself: Obesity in Canada
1. According to the latest statistics (Statistics Canada, 2012a), what percentage of Canadian
children, aged 5 to 17, are considered overweight or obese?
a. 1 in 20
b. 1 in 10
c. 1 in 3
d. 2 in 3
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2. According to the latest statistics (Statistics Canada, 2012b), what percentage of Canadian
adults, aged 18 to 79, are considered overweight or obese?
a. 1 in 20
b. 1 in 10
c. 1 in 3
d. 2 in 3
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Since this issue has received so much attention of late, in particular because of the health risks associated
with being overweight, many people are looking for causes and solutions.
When you think of causes, what comes to mind? Jot down a few notes for later.
Obesity and Overweight: Introduction
What is meant by “obese” and “overweight”?
In the last module, we talked about how there are competing discourses in a society at any given time,
including discourses about health and diet. Currently, the mainstream discourse about weight is a medical-
Obesity and being overweight are typically measured using the Body Mass Index or BMI. This is
calculated by dividing a person’s weight (in kilograms) by the square of their height (in meters). An adult of
18 years or over with a BMI of 30+ is deemed “obese.” An adult with a BMI of 25 to 29.9 is deemed
These terms are important to health officials because of the apparent health risks involved. According to
Statistics Canada (2002b):
[Being] overweight [or obese is] associated with an increased risk of numerous health problems,
including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obstructive sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, many types of
cancer (including breast, colorectal and pancreatic) and cardiovascular disease (coronary heart
disease and stroke).
However, we should recognize that other discourses about being overweight exist in our society. Self-
described “fat activis—s”people who celebrate large figures— and some scholars argue that concerns
about the health risks of large body sizes may be overblown. We’ll return to this at the end of the module. For
now, the thing to remember is that the medical-scientific view espoused by the government is not the only
Obesity and Overweight: Causes
In the Warm Up for this module, you were asked to jot down some ideas about the causes for becoming
overweight. Go back to your notes to answer the poll below.
Where do you do the majority of your food shopping?
Much of the mainstream discourse (reproduced in government, media, and popular culture) assigns
responsibility for being overweight to individuals. According to this discourse, body weight has to do primarily
with diet and exercise, which are seen to be individual choices. The subtext of this discourse is that people
who have large bodies are at fault because they are lazy.
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However, if it were true that individual personality and lifestyle were primarily the cause of being overweight,
there would be no noticeable differences between groups of people, nor would there be differences over time.
But this is not the case. There are many noticeable differences between socio-economic groups. There has
also been a well-publicized increase in being overweight over the past few decades. In the next few pages,
we’ll look at these differences in turn.
Obesity and Overweight: Time Period
As you are no doubt well aware, the number of people who are overweight or obese has increased
dramatically in the past few decades (see Figure 5.2).
Figure 5.2: An increasing percentage of the Canadian population has become obese (BMI over 30).
Source: Adapted from Public Health Agency of Canada. (2011). Obesity in Canada. Ottawa: Her
Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, p. 4.
What accounts for this rise in body size over the past few decades?
As you read in Chapter 12, Tony Winson, a sociologist at the University of Guelph, suggests that our political
economy is an important factor to consider.
He talks about the types of foods available in both supermarkets and schools. In this module, we’ll look at his
research on supermarkets.
His research team investigated 12 Loblaws, Sobey’s, and A & P supermarkets in Guelph, Kitchener, Waterloo,
and Cambridge to find out what foods were available and how they were presented. In particular, Winson was
interested in the availability of what he calls pseudo-foods.
By measuring the placement and shelf space devoted to pseudo-foods in the 12 supermarkets, Winson found
a few interesting things. Do you remember what they are?
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1. What did Winson’s research show about pseudo-foods?
a. An average of 31% of supermarket shelf space was devoted to pseudo-foods
b. Pseudo-foods were heavily marketed at the check-out and through numerous special
c. Entire aisles were devoted to pseudo-foods
d. All of the above
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Pseudo-foods are not only plentiful but heavily marketed in supermarkets. As Winson notes, if we see such
foods all over the store and then again at the check out, we are more likely to buy them, especially on
You might think: But we aren’t automatons that do whatever marketing tells us. We don’t have to buy anything.
This is a good point. We have agency. On the other hand, we are up against a formidable opponent in food
marketers. The food industry spends billions of dollars on psychological research to understand our shopping
and buying patterns and on advertising to manipulate our desires and emotions so that we buy more (Nestle,
2002). Further, much of this research attempts to understand the minds of children who do not have the same
will power and reasoning skills as adults. You may have heard of the “nag factor,” a marketing term describing
the different ways in which children manipulate their parents to make a purchase and that marketers use to
their advantage. Like many other marketing strategies, “nag factor” strategies were developed after in-depth
research by child psychologists on children (Bakan, 2004).
So, while we do have will power, it is reasonable to assume that billions of dollars of psychological research
and marketing has some effect on us. Think about your own experiences. Have you ever bought pseudo-food
when you weren’t planning on it? Did the placement and/or availability of the pseudo-food play a part in your
Going back to Winson’s research, why would retailers want to market pseudo-foods over healthier foods? Why
not just try to sell us more of any foods?
Winson’s concept of differential profit is useful here. The idea is that pseudo-foods offer stores a higher
profit than less-processed foods, such as produce or milk. This is because of the food industry notion that the
more a food is processed, the more it has “value added.” If a store wants to maximize profits, a good way to do
this is to sell more pseudo-foods.
The result, says Winson, is that we are seeing more and more pseudo-foods around us. He calls this the
spatial colonization of our food environments by pseudofoods. For Winson, this heavy marketing of pseudo-
foods, which has increased significantly in the past few decades, is partially responsible for the rise in obesity.
Obesity and Overweight: Region
There are also noticeable patterns in being overweight by region. Take a look at Figure 5.3. What pattern do
Note: King’s County is the smallest and most rural district in P.E.I.; Waterloo Region consists of the cities of
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Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge, and surrounding rural areas; and the Peel region is made up of the cities of
Brampton, Mississauga, and the town of Caledon.
Figure 5.3: Percentage of obese adults (30+ BMI) in different regions of Canada.
Source: Adapted from the Public Health Agency of Canada. (2011). Obesity in Canada. Ottawa: Her
Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada.
The general pattern is the larger the city, the lower the obesity rates. But why?
One reason relates to the notion of obesogenic environment, an “environment that promotes weight gain
and is not conducive to weight loss” (Swinburn et al., 1999). A selection of obesogenic environments are listed
Neighbourhoods or regions built primarily for cars
These are urban areas with few sidewalks, bike paths, and greenspaces, which makes walking and biking
unpleasant or dangerous. Or, conversely, they are rural areas with long distances between destinations,
making driving a practical necessity.
Poor neighbourhoods or regions
These may be food deserts, with little access to healthy foods (see Module 3). Residents may have little
money or political clout for neighbourhood beautification (again making biking or walking unpleasant). Or if
crime rates are high, people may be afraid to do outdoor activities.
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Figure 5.4: An obesogenic environment? The lack of sidewalks, bike lanes, and street lights on
this rural route in P.E.I. might make walking and biking inconvenient or dangerous.
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Verne Equinox, 2009
Other factors interact with this population-based pattern to create exceptions. You might have
noticed in Table 5.2, for example, that Vancouver has a lower rate of obesity than Toronto, even
though it has a smaller population. (In fact, Vancouver has one of the lowest rates of obesity in the
country). What other factors might be at play here? What do you think? Share your thoughts on
the Class Discussion Board.