Obesity in the United States

Culture Bound Syndromes are often the folk illnesses of medicine.  The term is brought about due to anthropologists not having distinct answers as to why symptoms occur in a person, and why they only see signs of the “disease” in certain parts of the world.  When culture bound syndromes (CBS) were found and labeled, many of the people labeling these CBSs were Westerners, and soon it was clear that although the rest of the world had CBSs, the US was clear of them.  This ethnocentric mind set was clearly inaccurate and the establishment of CBSs in the US became more prevalent.  Although there are a few to chose from, obesity seemed like an interesting topic to research.

In the article by Ritenbaugh, the coming of CBSs was explained as follows:  “As biological information has increased, so has the number of discrete biomedical diseases….Thus when anthropologist studying other cultures has found syndromes or symptom constellations not readily understood in biomedical terms, they have termed these syndromes folk illnesses in contrast to ‘real’ biomedical diseases.” (Ritenbaugh)

Obesity is clearly not a condition that is solely found in the United States, nor is it unknown as to why it occurs or how to deal with it.  Hence, it is perhaps not a stereotypical CBS.  However, it is the way in which the Western cultures refer to it and handle it that make it such a problem. In the United States ideal body image is a well driven point that is emphasized in every TV show, magazine article, store display, etc… Being too thin or too “fat” warrants being judged and ridiculed by peers.  The pressures of being obese can create other health problems such as depression that low self esteem that further promote the problem or effect the person in even more unhealthy ways.  However, we, as a country, are also quite obese overall from a health stand point.  So yes, part of the problem is the pressures that we put on each other from a social stand point, however, many other parts of the problem include poor diet and lack of exercise which encourages an unhealthy life style.  The two factors together create an environment that is unlike any other found throughout the world.  Thus, obesity is considered a CBS.

Lastly, the US has many ways in which to deal with the CBS.  There is an entire industry focused on diet pills, weight loss supplements, work out videos, gyms, “magic pills”, surgeries both invasive and non invasive, and lastly careers are even being created in order to help those in need of attention.  There are more diabetes specialists, nutritionists, personal trainers, and dietitians than ever before due to the poor life style and inability for people to control their own diets and exercise routines.  The syndrome, disease, problem (whatever one would like to refer to it as) is changing the culture of the US.


C. Ritenbaugh, Obesity as a Culture-bound Syndrome. Cult Med Psychiatry, 1982. 347-64. http://link.springer.com.proxy2.cl.msu.edu/content/pdf/10.1007%2FBF00118882.pdf.


This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Alex Palffy says:

    A culture is a population connected by similar beliefs such as language, history and customs/behavior. Obesity is definitely a culture based syndrome in the United States as there are many factors that influence its incidence. Since WW2, America has strived to be the pinnacle of productivity. Although nowhere near as many goods are produced in the United States as they were only a couple decades ago, the mentality of more is better hasn’t changed. Americans generally live high paced lives and this is true across cultural roles such as a homemaker maintaining a home and shuttling their kids to activities or a businesswoman who works sixty hours a week. A country that emphasizes productivity relies on convenience and “bang for your buck” to function. A glaring example of this is the popularity of fast food, but that is merely a symptom of the culture not the root cause of the obesity epidemic. Americans like fast results, and for many pursuing exercise doesn’t yield them. Initial gains take a lot of work up front, and then the rewards are slow to come by. That doesn’t fit well in a typical American’s expectations. Instant rewards are valued and this is evident throughout society, even in how health care is dispensed (or expected to be dispensed).

  2. Francesca says:

    Dear Kelly,

    I found your post on obesity to be very interesting and I guess I had never thought of obesity as a cultural bound syndrome. In my own words, I define culture as a similar understanding among a large group of people. I found it hard to define culture in my own words because it’s such a broad term and I never had thought about it much before. I believe obesity should not be considered a cultural bound syndrome because it is predominant all around the world and is treated very similarly. Obesity is also recognized among many different cultures around the world. In cultures where food is scarce, maybe very poor tribes in Asia or Africa, the word “obesity” would not exist. In their cultures, they would not have the problem of over-consuming food and being overweight to the point where problems such as diabetes and heart disease arise. Also, in countries where foods is scarce, majority of the people are more active because it does take much effort just to get food. These cultures could relate over-eating or obesity to having too much money. They may explain it just as overeating with little exercise.

    Francesca Bignasci

  3. Cheyenne Benyi says:

    I too, like Francesca, have never thought of obesity as a Culture Bound Syndrome, but it is an interesting way to look at the situation. Culture to me is a group of characteristics, traditions, and world views that are learned through different agents of socialization such as your parents. I don’t think that obesity in the United States is a culture bound syndrome as you see it in other cultures as well. Of course, the United States is widely known for our obesity problem, and we do have a very high rate of obesity. However, like I previously said it is also found in other cultures. Though this is true, I’m sure there are some countries where this illness does not exist. In some poorer countries, a person who is obese may be looked at as healthy or even royalty. This would be a sign of having enough money to be able to eat and it would be a positively looked upon.
    I also believe that obesity is not a cultural bound syndrome because, like you said it is known exactly what causes obesity and exactly how to treat it. We know that the cause is eating too much unhealthy foods and we know that exercise will treat it. Overall, I believe that obesity is a disease but I don’t believe that it is a cultural bound syndrome specific to the United States.

  4. Justin Kenton says:

    Hello group!

    I found the post to be interesting as well. I had never thought of obesity as a culture bound syndrome before I was doing my own research for my post CBS. I found a site that listed obesity as a CBS, but with my own analysis, I don’t think I would group obesity in the United States as a CBS. I would define culture to be the shared and understood ways a society acts and lives among each other. Culture would be the customs, values, and beliefs that are recognized and upheld by the majority of a population in a particular region.

    As I wrote, obesity should not be considered a CBS, but instead be considered a global problem. The eating patterns of the world are astounding. Even “eating healthy” is a gimmick. Our foods are laced with unnecessary food additives, artificial flavors, and enormous amounts of sugar. I just read a news article the other day that announced that the United States is no longer the most obese nation in the world, but instead Mexico took over the crown (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/09/mexico-obesity_n_3567772.html). It is the production methods, the costs, and the need to feed the masses that I believe contribute to the obesity problem around the world, not to mention the technology that has made our lives easier. From a biological aspect and if we want to consider how our bodies have evolved over time, humans are best suited for a different environment. Our environment has changed so much faster than evolution can keep up with because of the time it takes for our reproduction and natural selection to occur.

    There are disadvantages to saying that obesity is a culturally bound problem. There are many different factors that can contribute to obesity, not just the few I wrote about earlier. If were to say that obesity is a cultural bound problem specific to the U.S. and we address the issue and try to treat it, what does that have left to say about other obese people living around the world? What kinds of treatment methods are available to them? Cultures are vastly different around the world and we cannot forget that America isn’t the only nation with obese people. In some cultures, having excess weight is viewed to be a good thing. I am thinking about cultures that participate in force feeding and such.

  5. Molly DeMarr says:

    I think your approach on this post was very interesting. Initially I would never coin obesity as a culture bound syndrome but after thinking about it and reading your post I definitely make that connection. After all, on one end of the spectrum you have CBSs such as anorexia and bulimia so why wouldn’t obesity be a CBS also?
    I view culture as a group of individuals in a society that share common values, morals, norms and in some instances language and religion. And in the American culture, society is bombarded with how men and women should look when it comes to physical appearance and body shape. Overtime these standards have changed and it seems that the skinnier that the image of the “perfect body is” the larger the number of obese citizens there are. I’ve read in magazines and online articles (so note this may not be the most credible) that Marilyn Monroe was a size 12. Today models are easily a size 0. I definitely think that obesity is a culture bound syndrome. People are flooded with these expectations of how they should look and some people don’t always react in a positive direction as some may head down the road of inactivity and unhealthy eating. Obesity comes with so many other health problems it truly is a dangerous illness and effecting the health of a strong nation.
    Obesity in some cultures would not be considered a culture bound syndrome nor would it be considered an illness at all. In some African cultures obesity is a sign of wealth. That individual or family can afford great meals to feast on. Therefore, obesity would not be considered any type of issue in cultures as such.


  6. Karra Larkins says:

    I would not consider obesity to be a culture bound syndrome. Obesity has a well-defined definition of what it is, how is occurs and how it can be treated. Obesity is seen worldwide but it is treated differently in different cultures. In Africa for example obesity is a sign of wealth and of someone in good health. They are treated with respect and it is praised. In America however it is looked down upon and is often treated as a medical condition that needs to be fixed. This is a very common problem seen in the United States but this is because of the culture we live in. We are surrounded by fast food and things high in sugar content. Unlike in Africa where the majority of the food need to be grown or hunted and is overall more of a healthier diet then seen in the United Stated even though we have the same foods available. To me culture is what a society dictates as the norm, how people dress, what they eat and how they interact with one another. Some advantages of treating obesity as a culture bound syndrome are that it is easier to treat. Making it a problem for the entire society makes a collective effort to fix the problem.

  7. Katie Peterson says:

    Hey Kelly,
    I thought your post was pretty interesting. To me, culture is a large group of people sharing similar beliefs and language/religion. This also includes sharing the same outlook on cultural bound syndromes. As many others who have commented, I’ve never looked at obesity as a culture bound syndrome. Obesity is not by any means bordered in the United States. I think it is an epidemic throughout the world. However, I like how you defined it as a culture bound syndrome and I do agree that with your definition obesity is definitely a CBS. Our views on body image and the obsession to be “perfect” make obesity a CBS. Also, the opportunities that we all have to overeat make it a CBS. A double cheese burger in the US is at least five dollars cheaper than a salad. The access to so many different kinds of cheap fast food restaurants on every busy street has turned obesity into a United States epidemic and CBS.
    I don’t think other cultures perceive obesity with the negative connotations that we do. For some cultures that are underdeveloped or not as wealthy, being obese may be a sign of good health and wealth. While obesity can lead to disease, such as diabetes and heart disease, I don’t think other cultures perceive obesity itself as a disease.

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