Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Obesity unpacked: a journey into complexity

Stanley Ulijaszek

Most people have some dissatisfaction or concern about body weight, fatness, or obesity, either personally or professionally. I wrote ’Understanding Obesity’ out of a dissatisfaction with the dominant lines of investigation into this phenomenon, and the discourses that drive them. Sure, huge scientific progress has been made in understanding the physiology of eating and body fatness gain, as well as in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity, and this is outlined and lauded in this book. But gains in bioscience research have not translated easily, or to any great extent, in obesity interventions. The question ‘why so?’ is addressed repeatedly in various chapters. The book shows how the popular understanding of obesity is often at odds with scientific understandings of it, and how misunderstandings about people with obesity often add a layer of complexity to an issue that is already complex enough. Complexity and interconnectivity are key themes throughout – linear approaches to obesity intervention have repeatedly failed, across at least three decades.

The book describes, in an approachable way, interconnected debates about obesity in public policy, medicine and public health, and how media and social media engage people in everyday life in those debates. Various chapters consider respectively body fat and fatness, genetics, metabolism, food and eating, inequality, blame and stigma, and physical activity, in a way that shows how these usually separate domains of obesity research can be brought together into the field of complexity. By doing so, it aids navigation through the minefield of misunderstandings about body weight, fatness and obesity that exist today, after decades of mostly failed policies and interventions.

All of this, in a popular format. I have worked hard in making this book readable to the intelligent lay person – if I can’t reach out to them, I feel I am not really doing my job. There is huge popular interest in health and well-being and how best to achieve it. Making complexity understandable to everyday people in relation to healthy body size is I think key to helping this navigation through a minefield of misunderstandings about obesity. Each part of the story is legitimate and real, but each part is not the whole. It’s a bit like a soccer team – each player on the field has a role and popular understanding of that role gives so understanding of the game. If we understand the roles of all eleven players, then we are closer to understanding the game, but it is not until the players are playing a match that we can see the beauty in the beautiful game. Obesity has many aspects to it. In static form we are close to understanding obesity, but it is only in the interplay of factors and actors that we can see the rise of excess body weight as a personal, local, regional, national and global phenomenon.

Understanding obesity describes the role of different factors in the production of obesity, but then goes on to describe how they act together. I think it’s always better to know more than less, and this popular account of obesity in its complexity should help people willing to embrace complexity – in their lives and in the world – understand how to navigate towards a healthy body in a world full of mines and traps.

Title: Understanding Obesity

Author: Professor Stanley Ulijaszek

ISBN: 9781009218214

About The Author

Stanley Ulijaszek

Stanley Ulijaszek is an anthropologist studying obesity from evolutionary and cultural perspectives. He has undertaken research internationally, in both the Global North and South....

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