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Does Globalisation Lead to Obesities?



Stress, anxiety, sleep deprivation, and other common sequelae of modernisation have been shown to disrupt ingestive behaviour often promoting hyperphagia and affecting metabolism in ways that would promote accumulation of excess fat.

In a paper just published in Obesity Reviews by Lysa Huneault and colleagues from Laval University, Quebec City, Canada, the authors argue that modernisation and globalisation may account for the substantial increase in people with obesities around the world.

Following a brief discussion of the role of stress hormones in weight gain, and the little known fact that removal of the adrenal gland (a major source of stress hormones) protects animals from becoming obese, the authors argue that

“globalization and modernization which favour a labour context imposing additional stress and changes in life habits promoting a positive energy balance.”

According to their hypothesis, the increase in knowledge-based work (rather than traditional physical exertion in manual labour), and the decrease of quality and duration of sleep both induce an increase in stress hormones like cortisol, which can lead to an increase in food intake, a reduction in energy expenditure and body fat gain.

The authors argue that:

“from a socioeconomic perspective, globalization leads every nation of the world in conflict with itself and may consequently represent a real problem. On one hand, there are preoccupations related to productivity and money making. On the other hand, people have to adopt a daily lifestyle leading to hyperphagia and decreased energy expenditure in order to maintain their economic competitiveness.”

While this is certainly a most entertaining and stimulating discussion, the article of course cannot belie the fact that obesities were around well before globalisation, often affecting those that were well-off and comfortable rather than those who would have experienced the daily stress of simply making ends meet.

Of course, one may also argue that the latter would have readily gained weight had they had access to cheap, everpresent, highly palatable, calorie-dense foods as in our current environment (which undeniably is indeed a consequence of modernisation and globalisation).

Certainly, this article puts into perspective the rather complex ecological and macroeconomical factors that can interact with human biology to overwhelm hemeostatic functions that evolved to ensure survival under very different circumstances – concept that was nicely summarized in the Foresight Map.

Recognition of these factors certainly pose important challenges for public health endeavours that focus on attempting to change individual behaviours, which represent but natural and normal responses to an unnatural and obesogenic environment.

As Angelo Temblay, the senior author of this paper once said:

“Managing obesity is so challenging because it requires adopting unnatural behaviours to counteract an unnatural environment.”

AMS
Edmonton, Alberta

Huneault L, Mathieu ME, & Tremblay A (2011). Globalization and modernization: an obesogenic combination. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity PMID: 21366834

4 Comments

  1. Nice paper…Félicitations at Qc team for thinking outside the box. In same idea of “stressed city” few years ago (1989) George Ritzer, a sociologist teaching at the University of Maryland develop the concept of ‘McDonaldization of Society’ thesis. basic idea is (and let me quote to be sure I don’t miss spelling :o]
    – “Ritzer proposed that the McDonald restaurants, with their all-encompassing standardisation of everything related to the production and selling of goods, to consumer service and to the comprehensive scripting of human interaction within its orbit, offer a paradigm for changes in all areas of contemporary life; that therefore through close study of the way these restaurants work we may gain invaluable insight into the shape of things coming and yet to come.” (if you want for more read at http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/users/f/felwell/www/Theorists/Ritzer/index.htm and http://www.georgeritzer.com/ )

    and whit that “standardisation of everything” come the structural reduction of choice (e.i. what could be diversity…type of food … type of activity…) It became more efficiency but offer less structural opportunity.

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  2. If this is true, then why are Mexico and Slovakia among the countries with the highest rates of obesity, while Japan and Switzerland are among the lowest (per aneki.com)? Another study that I read recently (I can’t find the citation at the moment) also included Nicaragua in the top 10 list. I’ve spent a substantial amount of time in Nicaragua, and I can tell you from first-hand experience that life there is about as far as you can get from the “globalized” description you give above. For the most part (with the exception of some in Managua), men still do heavy physical labor and women run the home and/or operate small business (e.g., small stores in their front rooms). Internet cafes are increasing, but very few people have computers at home or use them regularly at work. Fast food is showing up in the big cities, but most people still eat what they have for generations: rice, beans, cheese, cabbage salad, and occasional chicken or beef. From my travels in Mexico, the situation seems to be similar there as well (with the exception of D.F.) – or, at least, closer to the historic than the globalized model.

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  3. viajera makes some good points. However it could be argued that poverty is even more stressful than a fast paced modern life.

    Also, I strongly suspect that (for example), Mexicans tend to have much larger builds than Japanese people due to straightforward heredity. That plays a very important role, no matter what else is involved.

    Following a brief discussion of the role of stress hormones in weight gain, and the little known fact that removal of the adrenal gland (a major source of stress hormones) protects animals from becoming obese…

    That’s really interesting. People have told me that they’ve gained weight in response to stress -and in the absence of changes to diet or activity level. Maybe that’s not so far fetched.

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  4. it could be argued that poverty is even more stressful than a fast paced modern life.

    @DeeLeigh, I would agree with this statement. However the Nicaraguan people have lived in poverty for, well, pretty much ever, with a few exceptions (as have many/most Mexicans). There was the war in the 70s-80s, but that’s been over for ~30 years now. So I don’t see how either long-term poverty or a 30 year-old conflict could in recent dramatic increases in the obese population.

    People have told me that they’ve gained weight in response to stress -and in the absence of changes to diet or activity level.
    Speaking for myself, I’ve had it work both ways. I’ve gained weight in response to stress (usually in response to longer, lower-grade stressors), and I’ve also dramatically lost weight in response to stress (usually of a more severe and short-term variety), both without major changes in diet and exercise.

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