The Sociology of Obesity

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Obesity as defined by WHO (2018) is having ‘’abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health ‘’. Most commonly measured using Body Mass Index (BMI) -which is based on height and weight-a score of 30 or more is considered obese. It can lead to several serious and potentially life-threatening conditions such as: type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke (due to the large amount of fat build up which can block arteries in the heart and body) and some types of cancer (NHS, 2018). Not only physically but obesity can also increase the risk of developing psychological problems such as depression and self-esteem which can potentially lower your quality of life (Luppino,2010). It was found that approximately 800 000 people die annually from depression so indirectly developing obesity kills thousands of teenagers and adults every year (WHO,2018). In 2016 alone, more than 650 million adults were found to be obese: with obesity rates nearly tripled since 1975 the NHS spends approximately £5.1 billion dealing with the issue in England (P Scarborough, 2011). Therefore, due to the increasing prevalence of obesity and stress placed on the healthcare system, it is globally regarded as one of the most significant Public Health issues (WHO, 2018).

While the basic drivers of obesity are obvious as “excessive sugar intake, increased portion size and decline in physical activity play a role in the rise of obesity” (Davidson K, 2001), there are multiple other complex causes leading into the condition, one of which refers to the ‘obesogenic environment’. Swinburn (1999) defined the term as “an environment that promotes gaining weight and one that is not conductive to weight loss’’. This suggests that obesity is increasingly higher due to the unhealthy and unsupportive surroundings where weight is consequentially being placed on as you are constantly surrounded by fast food and sugary foods. Children and youth ages 5-17 years are recommended at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily however in reality one in three children are now doing less than 30 minutes per day (WHO,2018). This could be a result of new technological innovations in the 21st century as children may exercise less because they may play video games on consoles such as Xbox and PlayStation with an average teenager playing on average for 12-15 hours a week (Statista, 2015)

According to WHO (2003) frequent fast food consumption is harmful to health as most foods are rich in saturated fats, carbohydrates and sodium – all of which are linked with hypertension and cardiovascular disease therefore contributing to the risk of developing obesity and potentially leading to death. Due to the sheer amount and variety of fast food outlets in the UK, they are seen to help create an obesogenic environment as outlets are readily and widely available to anyone and anywhere as approximately 40281 fast food outlets are open in the UK compared to only 14800 supermarkets which sells fresh food (Statista, 2018).

However, the rapid expansion and development of these fast food restaurants can be understood through the sociological perspective of capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and whereby goods are produced for sale in the free market in order to retain a profit (Zimbalist,1988). The free market simply explained refers to the idea that commodities can be bought from and by anyone freely, with most supporters arguing that it provides more opportunities for both consumers and producers as it creates more jobs and allows for competition (Farlex, 2009).

As capitalism resolves around creating a higher value altogether than of smaller parts, capitalist producers need to make goods efficiently and cheaply(braham,2013). Therefore, in this capitalist economy companies are gaining a lot of profit from selling fast food that just so happens to be those high in fat and those that are cheap to produce, easy to brand and market, and easy to stock up. For example, McDonalds (one of the biggest fast food chains) generates approximately £2.6 million in sales annually with its menu consisting highly of processed meat (Peterson,2018).

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From a capitalist viewpoint it may seem that the free market allows us the choice to consume and buy goods, but as Wells (2012) sees it, the 'unifying logic of capitalism' is exactly the opposite of this cliché about free markets. Food companies maximize their profits by “restricting our choices” through advertising and price manipulation. For example, medium fries only cost £1.09 in McDonalds whereas they cost £1.49 in Burger king, due to this clever marketing and price choice we can see that McDonald is more well-known as it has cheap prices and is more affordable to the consumer. Furthermore, Wells even suggested that it could occur at a psychological level through amplification of substances such as sucrose and caffeine in drinks which are somewhat addictive. These foods high in sugar and caffeine would then psychologically attract and trigger consumers to buy them regularly due to their addictive nature. This is an example of “profit motif” which is a capitalist theory suggesting that the only goal of a business is to turn a profit. This has been heavily criticised by scientists from the Frankfurt School of social science for its” standardised, poor quality goods that are produced disregarding labour conditions and environmental issues” (Braham P, 2013, pp41) and are considered to encourage selfishness and greed. We can directly see this in the form of the high in demand fast food that are created by the producers to appeal to consumers so that they produce profit for the company even if the food may be processed and unhealthy for individuals, rather than improve health levels companies take advantage of the consumers taste to overproduce unhealthy goods.

Marxism however is a critic of capitalism suggesting that it leads to social inequalities and class conflict between the bourgeois (middle class, who own the means of production) and proletariat (working class, workers). The aim of which is to balance the hegemonic powers within the bourgeois -who control society- as suggested by Gramsci (1971) and redistribute wealth into a communist economy rather than capitalist (Chambre H, 2018).

One of the biggest critiques of Capitalism was based on the exploitation of workers; In traditional systems workers would rely solely on what they produced themselves but due to capitalism their only way to survive was to sell their labour to an employer who would pay them minimum amount for their maximum effort. Due to this Marx disliked capitalism as although workers were working hard, their labour was used to make profits for bourgeois- those who owned the means of production. Additionally, as workers entirely depended on their wages, they were made to increase productivity through longer, harder hours in order to extract “surplus value”. Coined by Marx, surplus value is the difference between the value of what the labourer produced and the cost of their hire which were all carefully planned in order to maximise profit for the employer (Braham P, 2013, pp17). Eventually as capitalism has grown globally in the last century, this form of exploitation can still be seen both subtly and extremely in cases such as clothing where high street clothes are being made by children in smaller countries such as Myanmar for only 10-13p an hour (Guardian).Companies such as clothing brands and other commodities such as cars prefer to use this system of cheap labour often as the surplus value is maximised which is advantageous to the company. This is as the company will pay very little wages to the employees, but the goods produced by the worker will be sold in larger countries for thousands of pounds. In Marx's terms this profit is a direct reflection of the degree to which workers' labour has been exploited. More subtly people all over the world are being paid less than the price of their labour with the constantly widening inequality gap as ‘’ 42 people hold the same wealth as 3.7bn poorest ‘’(Elliot L, 2018).In south Korea for example the minimum wage is 7000 Korean won yet stores such as 7-Eleven pay minimum of 5000 Korean won per hour. Although the inequality is obvious, students and other citizens opt to accept these job roles in order to survive as they need money in this economy in order to survive. Due to the low income and poverty in the UK specifically, people cannot afford home cooked meals and full healthy lunches. Instead as Marx pointed out, those from the working-class background-who are constantly pushed to work harder for their employer to gain profit – opt to eat out at fast food restaurants as they are cheap, quick and convenient, with a meal costing £5 or less (Rayner, 2013).Therefore due to the direct impact of capitalism, obesity has significantly risen as individuals are- as Marx suggested- alienated from the product. This means that the product they produce is too expensive for them to use so they are in turn separated from the product of their labour. For example, some people working in high end restaurant may not themselves be able to afford to buy the food they themselves make regularly. As more and more people become alienated from the products, they’d opt out to consume more affordable goods for themselves to also obtain money. Therefore, more and more people are becoming a target as the capitalist economy which is constantly evolving and with increasingly small jobs available to individuals. This then would result in more individuals affected by social inequalities as Marx suggested leading to mass consumption of commodities such as fast food resulting in the high risk of developing obesity.

Although the free market involves a laissez -faire form with little to no government intervention, Public Health professionals and the government have implemented several initiatives and plans to help reduce obesity through looking from a sociological perspective(Braham P, 2013, pp 15).For example, a recent sugar tax has been implemented on British drinks companies in the attempts to decrease rising levels of obesity and tooth decay. The idea is that the higher content of sugar found in the drink the higher tax it will have. As a result, for a regular coke can, the price has increase by around 8p with brands such as Irn Bru deciding to release new sweetener-laced fizzy drinks with a decreased 54% on sugar content (Birchall G et al ,2018). The Theory behind this kind of new implementation is the idea that prices for drinks have risen therefore the consumer will not buy them as much which will directly impact the sales and profit of the company. Furthermore, it will cost the companies more to produce such sugary drinks due to the sugar tax. As a result, companies will produce drinks which are less sugary, and people will decrease the amount they consume which would overall benefit their help and influence rate of obesity and tooth decay. This type of sugar tax on sugary drinks was introduced in Mexico in 2014 and the results showed a 12% reduction in tooth decay and obesity in the first year suggesting that the intervention taken by the government is very useful and has a strong chance at controlling obesity.

To conclude this approach of capitalism is very useful to both explain obesity and to suggest how to respond to the issue as this approach is very holistic. Although capitalism enables us to think deeper regarding the economic state and free market it also acknowledges other biological and social factors which contribute to obesity and are amplified by inequalities directly created by capitalism. Through this, many successful research and interventions have been made such as the sugar tax and Change4life campaign which successfully help control and prevent the rise of obesity. Change4life aims at specifically children, enabling them to make healthy life choices especially as approximately 1/3rd of children leaving primary school are obese (GOV,2017).

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The Sociology of Obesity. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 18, 2024, from
“The Sociology of Obesity.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
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