Obesity and welfare

Obesity is a public health problem in affluent societies, and tends to be related to socio-economic level and to gender. It is not just a problem of individual behaviour, but responds to larger social, political and economic changes over the past fifty years. This project follows two environmental approaches to the rise of obesity, namely 1) that market access to cheap, high-calorie food is associated with high national obesity rates, and  2) that obesity rates are influenced by social welfare regimes, and have risen more in market-liberal than in social-democratic societies. The causal mechanism is assumed to be the individual stresses generated by social and economic competition, which are inversely related with socio-economic status, and which appear to be lower in social-democratic societies. The project investigates these hypotheses by means of comparative statistical studies of the diffusion of obesity in different countries, controlling for local characteristics.

Obesity: the Welfare Regime Hypothesis conference

Another connection with neoliberalism was explored at a ground-breaking workshop at the University of Oxford in 2009. The common theme of the presentations, drawn from multiple disciplines, was that political structures such as welfare regimes  influence the obesity epidemic. More specifically, higher levels of economic insecurity – associated with market liberalism and the ‘creative destruction’ that Joseph Schumpeter extolled as a defining virtue of capitalism – are causally linked with a higher prevalence of obesity.

Excerpt from ‘How Politics Makes us Sick’ by Ted Schrecker and Claire Bambra, 2015

Perspectives both supporting and refuting the welfare regime hypothesis were presented over the course of a two-day conference on 27-28 November 2009. Preliminary findings were published in a British Academy Review. The conference proceedings are available as a volume edited by Avner Offer, Rachel Pechey and Stanley Ulijaszek, entitled Insecurity, Inequality and Obesity in Affluent Societies (The British Academy, 2012).


Conference presentations

John Komlos
(University of Munich)
Trends and socio-economic correlates of obesity in the United States  komlos
Thorkild Sørensen
(University of Copenhagen)
The history of the obesity epidemic  mp3
Adam Drewnowski
(University of Washington)
Mapping poverty and obesity
Peter Whybrow
(University of California, Los Angeles)
Obesity and time urgency mp3
Avner Offer
(University of Oxford)
Welfare regimes and obesity  offer
Stanley Ulijaszek
(University of Oxford)
Behavioural ecology of obesity Slidesmp3
Michael Marmot
(University College London)
Subordination and stress Slides
Richard Wilkinson
(University of Nottingham)
Inequality and obesity: the background  wilkinson
Kate Pickett
(University of York)
Inequality and obesity: the pathways  mp3
Trent Smith
(Washington State University)
Behavioral biology and obesity trent smith
Robin Dunbar
(University of Oxford)
Food and the social brain
James Stubbs
(Slimming World)
Obesity: implementation of behaviour change in the general population?
Georgina Cairns
(University of Stirling)
Obesity and marketing exposure Slides
Avner Offer and Stanley Ulijaszek
(University of Oxford)
Welfare regimes and supply shock

















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