The World Health Organization defines obesity as the “abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health”. (WHO, 2014). It is considered to be a medical condition which may reduce a person's life expectancy due to the negative effect it can have on our health and well-being. An epidemic is said to affect a disproportionately large number of people in a population and spreads rapidly. In recent decades, it has been suggested that we are facing an obesity epidemic. Obesity has been considered as a disease by some for over sixty years. It is more common globally than being underweight. The purpose of this essay is to look at the history of obesity and how it is defined. It will look at some of the causes and consider the effects. It will consider how obesity is framed, whether we are indeed in the midst of an epidemic, or if this suggestion is merely moral panic.
Being underweight has been associated with poverty, poor nutrition and considered as damaging to our health, particularly throughout times in history when food has been scarce. In contrast, during the eighteenth century, being overweight and obesity was associated with health, wealth and even attractiveness. Body fat was once seen as desirable and useful in protecting against infectious diseases. According to Sobal (1995), fat shifted historically from a sign of health and wealth in traditional societies to being seen as bad, sinful, and ugly in modern societies. Obesity was first recognised as a medical disorder, and as being a risk to health by the Greeks. Hippocrates, who was a Greek physician, did not view it as a disease in itself, but as a condition which could lead to other health issues.
Obesity is most simply defined as an excess of body fat and is often associated with numerous health problems. It has been framed as a medical health risk, a public health crisis and also as a disease. A person’s body weight is an individual biological fact about that person. There is a ratio between a person’s calorific intake and their calorific expenditure. Calorific intake is what a person consumes through food and drink. Calorific expenditure is in the form of activity and exercise. Weight loss or weight gain is usually as a result of either of these exceeding the other. Excessive calorific intake without the equivalent calorific expenditure may result in a person storing excess fat. Environmental, social and genetic factors are also said to contribute to obesity.
Excess body weight and its health consequences first became apparent in the early 20th century, when the American Metropolitan Life Insurance Company identified that there was a greater risk of mortality in those individuals who were overweight. They produced weight ranges with specific height and frame sizes which had been correlated with mortality data to produce ranges of ‘ideal weight’. (Fletcher, 2011, p.4). British obesity researchers used the Metropolitan...