Women are powerfully (but subconsciously) influenced by the weight of those around them and without being aware of it, they can get caught in a spiral of imitative obesity, say researchers from the University of Warwick, Dartmouth College, and the University of Leuven.
The researchers suggest that whether for reasons of career or finding a mate, it is someone's weight relative to others that matters. They add that overweight perceptions and dieting decisions are influenced by people's comparisons with others of the same age and gender.
The research shows that highly educated Europeans hold themselves to a particularly tough standard. For any given level of Body Mass Index (BMI), somebody with a university degree feels much fatter than someone with low educational qualifications.
Overall, the researchers believe that a person's "utility" (an economic term roughly meaning satisfaction levels) depends on their own weight relative to the weight of those around them. They suggest that it is easier to be fat in a society that is fat.
Interestingly, the authors also found a significant gender split. Females were much more prone - for any given BMI value - to feel overweight. For European women, weight dissatisfaction and overweight perceptions depended crucially upon not just their own absolute BMI, but also upon their BMI relative to other women of the same age in their country. Conversely, being overweight tended not to be a significant issue for men if many of those around them were as overweight as they were.
"Consumption of calories has gone up but that does not tell us why people are eating more. Some have argued that obesity has been produced by cheaper food, but if fatness is a response to greater purchasing power, why do we routinely observe that rich people are thinner than poor people?" asked researcher Andrew Oswald.
"A lot of research into obesity, which has emphasized sedentary lifestyles or human biology or fast-food, has missed the key point. Rising obesity needs to be thought of as a sociological phenomenon not a physiological one. People are influenced by relative comparisons, and norms have changed and are still changing," he concluded.
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Source: University of Warwick