Social Epidemic of Obesity

The rapid growth of obesity and the associated mortality risks have generated more public awareness, but controlling it is still not an easy task. Appreciating its inter-person dynamics is substantially important (Huang et al. 1). Obesity is caused by an interaction of many factors, behavioral, genetic, and environmental influences. However, the speed of which the rates of obesity are growing suggests that environmental/social and behavioral factors, rather than biological changes fuel the spread of the epidemic (Williams et al. 515). This literature review explores the social epidemic of obesity, looking into social and behavioral factors stimulating the spread of obesity, particularly childhood obesity in the United States population. The researcher will first explore the contagious social theory of the obesity epidemic and then link the same to social disadvantages factors and socioeconomic status as the drivers of obesity.


            Social, environmental factors, especially social interactions, are closely associated with people’s health. Phenomena such as biological games, misinformation, indirect reciprocity, and infectious diseases have been established to spread interpersonally in a social network. Obesity is among them and is viewed as a contagious epidemic (Huang et al. 2). The distinctive feature is that interpersonal contacts do not determine obesity, rather a social contagion progression that cannot be described perfectly by the infectious disease models. Various mental factors such as self-esteem, depression, sense of security, and many others predispose to obesity (Huang et al. 1), but are often overlooked.


Huang et al., in their study, argued that emotion is transferable indirectly from one person to another through imitation or “emotional contagion.” Such mental dynamics can be shaped into social contagion processes (Huang et al. 5). Obesity, to the extent, is a product of voluntary social behaviors such as unwelcomed health-related behaviors, including binge eating. Sedentary behaviors such as working on a computer or watching television are known to increase weight compared to physical activity-related behaviors (Huang et al. 4). In other words, social contagion processes are the key driving factors of the inter-person distribution dynamics of obesity.


The etiology of childhood obesity in the U.S. appears to be multi-factorial (Williams et al. 514) and is related to social disadvantages. Research links lower education attainment and maternal obesity, African American race, poor nutrition knowledge, smoking, physical inactivity, and perceived community safety as eminent parental risk factors. The high rate of childhood obesity linked to these factors translates into adverse health consequences that may persevere as the child transition into adulthood (Williams et al. 515), leading to the development of chronic diseases, including hypertension, diabetes, and coronary heart problems.

In their study, Lee et al. noted an outstandingly high incidence of childhood obesity among underprivileged groups across the United States, including ethnic/racial minorities and families with low-income and low education levels (Lee et al. 141). Children from such vulnerable groups not only struggle with hardship at the family level but also at the neighborhood, peer-groups, and school levels (Lee et al. 146). For instance, many of the disadvantaged juveniles traverse environments where their peers may also be in a similar situation, translating into unhealthy behaviors.They attend schools and neighborhoods with less access to healthy foods and physical education programs (Lee et al. 147), factors that are predominantly linked to the high prevalence of obesity. Besides, deprivation or poverty leads people to go for cheaper foods, which in the end translates to overconsumption of energy (Hruschka, Daniel 278), explaining the high prevalence of obesity in the minority underprivileged groups.

The ecological philosophy of human development asserts that people are shaped by the immediate environment in which they are entrenched. Such include family, neighborhoods, peer-groups, and school settings. These ecological factors are theorized as nested structures and signify progressively larger contexts of the environments where children and adolescents live, interact with peers, and even learn. The factors impact opportunities and resource availabilities, ties, and relationships, and are dependent on established norms of behaviors and values (Lee at al. 147). While exploring the socio-cultural influence of obesity, Ball, Kylie, et al. concluded that it is not ethnicity, social relationships, or socioeconomic position that influences the risk of obesity across populations but also meaning attached to obesity in those different setups (Ball, Kylie, et al. 107).  All the levels work together to influence the development of the child, including health-behaviors and statuses such as obesity. 

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Low Socioeconomic Status and Race/Ethnicity

Socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity form the subset of social disadvantage factors but are often discussed differently in pair. Low socioeconomic status (SES) is linked to high rates of childhood obesity, particularly among African Americans and Hispanic families. Despite the latest modest enhancements in the rates of obesity among low-income groups in the United States, the epidemic continues to rock higher among preschool-aged children from low-income families. Researchers attribute the high prevalence among African Americans and Hispanics minorities to their greater poverty rates (Williams et al. 515). Lainscak, Mitja, et al. notes a similar pattern in their research on the relationship between obesity and poverty in developed and developing countries. Their finding postulates that the rate of obesity and overweight in developing countries increases with the ease of accessibility to low-cost of highly processed foods with low nutritional value and empty calories (Lainscak, Mitja, et al. 3), further linking obesity to low socioeconomic status.

Rogers, Robert, et al., for instance, noted that between 2009 and 2010, 23.7% of young people aged 12-19 from African American origin were obese. The number is slightly higher than their white counterparts in the same age group who reported only a 16.1% rate of obesity (Rogers, Robert, et al. 692). The rate of obesity-related risk factors such as high-density lipoprotein, hyperlipidemia, and higher fasting glucose among low-income neighborhoods. Besides, research shows that African Americans eat more fast food on overage and exhibit adverse dietary habits during childhood compared to Caucasians (Sanabria, Emilia 138). The pattern is associated with the nature of food available in the primarily lower-income African American communities such as Massachusetts (Rogers, Robert, et al. 694), leading to a high prevalence of obesity in such settings.


Childhood obesity presents a serious public health problem, with about one-third of adolescents and children in the U.S. is either overweight or obese (Rogers, Robert, et al. 692). Obesity is caused by an interaction of many factors, behavioral, genetic, and environmental influences. However, social and behavioral factors such as social disadvantages, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity seem to be the key drivers for the spread of the epidemic compared to biological changes. For instance, this study has revealed that there is a strikingly high prevalence of childhood obesity among underprivileged groups across the U.S., including ethnic/racial minorities and families with low-income and low education levels (Lee et al. 141). The pattern is linked to unhealthy eating patterns, ignorance and lack of physical activities.  


Ball, Kylie, et al. “The Role of Socio-Cultural Factors in the Obesity Epidemic.” Obesity Epidemiology: From Etiology to Public Health, vol. 2, 2010, pp.105-118.

Hruschka, Daniel J. “Do Economic Constraints on Food Choice Make People Fat? A Critical Review of Two Hypotheses for Poverty–Obesity Paradox.” American Journal of Human Biology, vol. 24, no. 3, 2012, pp.277-285.

Huang, He, et al. “A Social Contagious Model of the Obesity Epidemic.” Scientific Reports, vol. 6, 2016, pp.1-9.

Lainscak, Mitja, et al. “The Obesity Paradox in Chronic Disease: Facts and Numbers.” Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia, and Muscle, 2012, pp.1-4.

Lee, Hedwig, Kathleen M. Harris, and Joyce Lee. “Multiple Levels of Social Disadvantage and Links to Obesity in Adolescence and Young Adulthood.” Journal of School Health, vol. 83, no. 3, 2013, pp.139-149.

Rogers, Robert, et al. “The Relationship Between Childhood Obesity, Low Socioeconomic Status, and Race/Ethnicity: Lessons from Massachusetts.” Childhood Obesity, vol. 11, no. 6, 2015, pp.691-695.

Sanabria, Emilia. “Circulating Ignorance: Complexity and Angiogenesis in the Obesity Epidemic. “Cultural Anthropology, vol. 31, no. 1, 2016, pp.131-158.

Williams, Amy S., et al. “Socioeconomic Status and Other Factors Associated with Childhood Obesity.” The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, vol. 31, no. 4, 2018, pp.514-521.