In late modernity, and particularly in the so-called First World, eating habits (like consumption in general) has become a way to look for safety, well-being, freedom and identity. This consumption is also object of social control by peer groups, family, Administrations, private companies, medical staff and the media. Moreover, eating can be a source of satisfaction, dissatisfaction and social condemnation. This is clearly illustrated by over-eating (in particular obesity) commonly understood in the context of excessive eating and/or life styles. Then, there is the other side of the coin concerning human nutrition, where one can find an important lack of food, not only, but particularly in societies occupying the outer perimeter of the world economy.
■ TOWARDS A SOCIAL ANTHROPOLIGICAL VIEW OF OBESITY
The 2001 National Health Survey showed that in Spain 13.65% of the population over 20 years of age suffered from obesity. In 1997 these figures were different (13% of the population), and in 1993 it affected only 9.4% of the population. These figures show an increase of obesity among the population. A study carried out in 2004 by the IOE group showed similar results, although it showed a stabilisation of the figures in 2003. Health authorities find this figures a problem that needs urgent solutions and prevention methods. But, what causes this problem?
Too much body mass can be found in individuals with a genetic tendency to develop it. However, this tendency can be developed differently depending on some socio-cultural factors. Two of them are generally accepted as causes for obesity— a sedentary lifestyle and poor eating habits. We can find a third factor in the interaction and relationship of the person defined as obese (or at least with a fattening tendency) with other agents.
It is particular of modern societies the access to food regularly and abundantly combined with a reduced use of human energy. Mechanisation, new technologies and the development of means of transportation have contributed to this. A sedentary lifestyle together with a massive consumption of animal proteins and simple sugars and the little consumption of bran and complex carbohydrates result in overweight and, ultimately, in obesity. Human innately tend to like sweet flavours and those foods that immediately satiate us, which explains the high value meats and sugars have for us (Harris, 1989; Contreras, 2002). Highest incomes in Third World countries tend to have more meat than the average population. In Jamaica, for instance, the poorest 25% of the population obtain their proteins from wheat flour, while the richest 25% obtain it from poultry and bovine meat. In First World countries, the consumption of fatty meats and sugars have been spread thanks to the popularisation of fast food chains. These chains respond to the people’s expectancies for whom hedonism has become essential and a main source of their identity. To satisfy this hedonism in the food sphere, people look for immediate gratification. At the same time, these individuals are trying to achieve a gratifying image of themselves according to a beauty canon. We have to add, then, the image those same individuals have of fats and obesity to a sedentary lifestyle and fats and sugar consumption.
Albert Moncusí Ferré. Professor of Sociology and Social Anthropology at the University of Valencia.