World Axis with Hare

Global Cultures and Global Variations in Obesity

Obesity prevalence is rising all over the world. But in different cultures and different countries, tremendous variations in obesity are striking. Countries of eastern Asia tend to have very low obesity prevalence. Japan, for example, has an obesity rate of just five percent, according to the World Obesity Federation. Meanwhile, obesity prevalence stands at 43 percent in the U.S. Of course, many factors can explain the global variations in obesity, but could it be that cultures play a role?

A new paper in Social Science & Medicine suggests that two cultural factors may indeed be important – individualism and flexibility.

Empiric Data from 51 Countries

To reach these conclusions, Plamen Akaliyski and colleagues gathered empiric data on 51 countries in every region of the world, as well as imputed data from additions countries. In total, they analyzed data for 155 countries that represent 98 percent of the global population.

They looked at two cultural dimensions from a model of national cultures published in 2018. Individualism draws a distinction between cultures that emphasize individual rights and freedoms versus those that favor conformity and submission to authority. Flexibility is all about personal adaptation. In highly flexible cultures, the expectation is that people will adapt to changing circumstances and control their impulses to do otherwise. At the other extreme of this spectrum, self-indulgence and gratification are more dominant.

Through extensive analysis, Akaliyski et al found that individualism accounted for global variations in obesity for men, but not for women. They suggest that this may be because individualism relates to some health behaviors in ways that are gender specific. So for men, but not for women, obesity rates tended to be higher in cultures that prize individual rights and freedoms.

With the flexibility dimension they found predictive value across the board. Cultures that emphasize gratification rather than restraint tended toward higher obesity prevalence.

It’s Complicated

Of course, global variations in culture and obesity are complicated subjects. Obesity results from the interaction of biological susceptibility with environmental triggers. Behavior is the old standby for moderating obesity, but it has its limits. We might think of these cultural factors as being part of the environment that can either trigger or restrain susceptibility to obesity.

Others, such as Benjamin Senauer and Masahiko Gemma, have tried to explain global variations in obesity through the economics of transportation and food. In the end, it’s hard to find singular explanations for the complex systems problem of obesity.

Nonetheless, looking through the lens of national cultures may be quite helpful.

Click here for the Akaliyski paper and here for the paper by Senauer and Gemma.

World Axis with Hare, painting by August Natterer / WikiArt

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July 9, 2022

2 Responses to “Global Cultures and Global Variations in Obesity”

  1. July 10, 2022 at 1:21 am, John B Dixon said:

    It also appears weight stigma is less frequent and perhaps damaging in cultures that act collectively rather than individually?

    • July 10, 2022 at 3:32 am, Ted said:

      John, I’d be interested in research on that question. Certainly it’s an interesting point.