What is the link between obesity and disadvantage?

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While a low socioeconomic status is generally defined by a lack of wealth, the cost of being poor takes an expensive toll on those who already can’t afford it. To gain a greater understanding of the issues faced by the worst off in our communities, we also need to consider health, social, and cultural factors that impact the socially disadvantaged on a daily basis.

Physical impacts

Professor Kylie Ball from Deakin University’s Faculty of Health has completed research focusing on understanding the individual, social and environmental influences that shape eating patterns and health management behaviour. She has discovered that those who experience socioeconomic disadvantage – for example, those with a low education level, low status occupation, low income, or even living in a socioeconomically disadvantaged neighbourhood – are at increased risk of becoming overweight or obese, and of suffering ill health as a consequence.

‘The reasons for this are not completely understood. We know that people facing disadvantage tend to eat less healthily and to engage in less physical activity,’ Prof. Ball says and explains that these behaviours are socioeconomically patterned. Factors are related to time, costs, family and work pressures, skills, knowledge, values, beliefs, support and access to healthy food and physical activity.

Prof. Ball’s findings form part of broader research around the costs of being economically disadvantaged, which highlights the emotional and physical stress of poverty and the social trauma of shame and guilt associated with struggling to provide for self and the family. These cultural impacts have a toxic effect on the human mind. Some studies suggest the impact can reduce brain size and the ability to cope with stress. This is significant because people become trapped in a cycle of poverty. As health management becomes poorer and socially disadvantaged people begin to gain weight, the social shame self-perpetuates.

'We know that people facing disadvantage tend to eat less healthily and to engage in less physical activity'

Alfred Deakin Professor Kylie Ball,
Deakin University

Total wellbeing

‘To address socioeconomic inequities in obesity, we need solutions that are multifaceted. We need to focus on promoting and supporting the behaviours that protect against obesity risk among those who are disadvantaged,’ Prof. Ball explains. ‘Strategies that help support people to be more physically active could include mandatory high quality physical education in schools, subsidised public transport, and enhanced public open space,’ she adds. These are strategies that directly address the specific barriers to healthy eating faced by disadvantaged groups.

But the onus is also on the wider community to reshape our view of the socially disadvantaged and healthy eating. Traditional attitudes paint the individual as the problem and a radical shift is needed to reframe the issue as a public health crisis with many factors. ‘Inequities in obesity are unlikely to be resolved without also addressing the broader social determinants of health – that is, through social and fiscal policies that address the unequal distribution of wealth and power within societies,’ Prof. Ball concludes.

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Professor Kylie Ball
Professor Kylie Ball

Alfred Deakin Professor, School of Excercise and Nutrition Science, Deakin University
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