A headline hit the papers last week which, as a British woman, embarrassed me. Because apparently, we are the fattest in Europe. The “deeply troubling” figures were contained in a report from the EU’s statistic’s agency, Eurostat, and have (hopefully) got many of us sitting to attention.
But that’s not all. One of the key findings of the report was that the proportion of obesity falls as educational levels rise. Which leaves us with perhaps an even more pressing issue: are British women the fattest in Europe because they’re the thickest in Europe?
The obvious link between obesity and education is that being overweight can be detrimental to a child’s ability to learn because of things like low self-esteem and low attendance. “Research published in the International Journal of Obesity reveals that being overweight doesn’t just affect a child’s health” dietician Juliette Kellow says. “It can also have an impact on their education and ability to learn.”
“There may be a link between self-esteem and learning”, online site Weight Loss Resource says. “Being overweight may lower children’s self esteem, making it harder for them to concentrate in class so that they learn less. Possible health problems with obese children may also affect attendance at school which in turn, will affect school performance.”
However, there are other factors as well, as a report entitled Childhood obesity and educational attainment: a systematic review and conducted by the EPPI Centre at the University of London’s Institute of Education found. “It is likely that obesity and poor school performance are elements of a broader picture of inequalities in health and education, whereby disadvantaged socio-economic groups tend to have poorer health and lower levels of education”, it says. “However, it is possible that other factors influence obesity and attainment, such as gender, discrimination and poor mental and emotional well-being.
“Obesity should not be understood solely as a health issue”, it continues. “This review, and other research, suggests that one of the most noticeable ways in which obesity affects the lives of children and young people is in their social relationships. Given the paucity of evidence suggesting a causative physiological link between obesity and attainment, any association is likely to be mediated by social factors. We find that stigmatisation, bullying, low self-esteem and young people’s exclusion from opportunities for social interaction are suggested as underlying any relationship between obesity and lower educational attainment.”
And it works the other way, too. Catering consultant at Foods for Life Health and Nutrition, Tony Bishop-Weston, agrees with the initiative founded by the School Food Trust to emphasise the need for cooking skills. “We need to start with the children - teach them about real food and why it’s important”, he says, suggesting that obesity is likely to be related to a lack of health-related education. And psychologist Dr Abigael San agrees, explaining that “the higher the IQ, the better informed and more aware of the risks associated with obesity.”
But is there any truth in the implication that low educational levels are the reason behind the un-coveted title of ‘fattest in Europe’?
Although female education levels in the UK does seem to have decreased between 2005-2009, with a 7% drop in further education and a 0.3% drop in higher education, according to government figures, obesity levels among the female population have also dropped, with 24.8% of women and 18% of girls being classified as obese in 2005, and 24% of women and 15% of girls being classified as obese in 2009.
“The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data does show that the proportion of HE students at HE institutions who were female fell slightly between 2004/05 and 2008/09”, press and data protection officer Simon Kemp says, “though female students are still comfortably the majority in higher education.”
A low educational level, therefore, may not be as causal as earlier predicted. However, it is interesting to note that less girls are obese than boys between the ages of 2-15, which may suggest that an education link does exist.
However, seeing that both the evidence is weak and that the Eurostat report does not actually have any data on the educational level in the UK, it is important to look at the other factors which could be responsible for the high levels of female obesity in this country.
“It may be explained by a sense of complacency once women settle into long term relationships”, Dr San says. “They don’t feel as strong a need to maintain an attractive figure as they are no longer trying to attract a partner, so they allow themselves to relax more and enjoy food.
“Some may view pregnancy as a licence to eat as much and as often as desired”, she continues. “It’s hard to shift post natal weight gain and is perceived as less important if strongly identify with maternal role which doesn't place demands on size or shape.
"Many women juggle career, parenting, and maintaining their home, which leaves little time to exercise or prepare healthy meals - fast foods with higher fat content are subsequently perceived as more time-efficient. And looking after children means there is consistent exposure to leftovers.
“Other Europeans take their diets and the behaviour of eating much more seriously”, she adds. “In France there is a proper lunch time, and shops close and work stops. British women don’t have that discipline or that much respect for food and eating – the busy ones will munch through something at their desks still working, and again, fast food is fast.”
But Tony is less forgiving, and sees obesity as problem for men just as much as it is for women. “This research is quite clearly saying the UK has more stupid fat people than the rest of Europe but no one is likely to express it like that”, he says. “The UK also has more than its fair share of anorexics too. Perhaps the main problem is the UK is just culturally neurotic about food. The real problems are complex - the core being we eat too much nutritionally worthless foods and don't exercise enough. The Americanisation of the UK with Pizza hut, KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King and our adoption of a SAD diet (Standard American diet) is mainly to blame. Healthy eating messages fall on deaf ears, not helped by the hypocrisies of having a Burger King in pride of place in Croydon Hospital, seemingly condoned by appointment to the NHS.
“The decline in family values and support has also left people more isolated and more prone to stress”, he adds. “Stress caused by lack of community unemployment and poverty has a huge impact on hormones, nutrient absorption and mood, which results in a healthy diet both less likely but even more important.”
Why do you think women in the UK are struggling so much with obesity? Do you agree with the educational implication? Get discussing below!