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How Your Culture Affects Your Weight

Your personal culture affects your attitudes about acceptable body weight.

Source: S.McQuillan

For many people, culture has an even greater influence than biology on eating habits and attitudes toward food and body weight. If you grew up with eating habits based on ethnic, religious, or other cultural traditions, those practices may be strongly imbedded in your thinking today. The types of foods you choose, how you prepare them, the seasonings you add, when you eat, how much you eat, and how much you think you should weigh, can all have great social meaning if you strongly identify with your culture.

Your culture includes where you live, your family size and composition, your age, your gender, your ethnicity, your marital status, your education level and that of your family, your occupation and the occupations of your family members. Your culture permeates every aspect of your life, including how much exercise you get and how you view your own body.

Your job and your work culture can have a strong influence on your eating and activity habits, as well as your weight, especially if you work around food or your job involves taking clients out to eat on a regular basis. If you’re like most people, your job has more of an effect on your activity level, especially if you are sitting or standing still throughout most of your workday, and don’t have the flexibility to go out to a gym or even take a full lunch hour and use it to take a walk.

Income also affects eating and exercise habits; statistics show that higher-income women tend to be thinner than lower-income women. Money gives you more control over your life and affords resources such as gym memberships, personal trainers, nutrition counseling, spa visits, and specially prepared foods, all of which can help with weight control.

Just as your personal culture affects your attitude about food and eating, cultural values and norms affect how you think about fatness and thinness. Some groups of people are more accepting of higher body weights than others. Traditionally, most cultures have valued a certain amount of heaviness over extreme thinness.

But social ideals change with time and thinness has remained in style, especially in the United States and Europe. America’s obsession with dieting and weight control clearly shows that we value thinness over heaviness. Thin is considered healthier, though this is not always the case. Unfortunately, this prevailing cultural attitude toward size and shape, with its emphasis on reducing weight, affects our self-esteem and can influence how we feel, not only about our bodies, but also about our place in society.

Since the early 1960s, the overall obesity rate among American men and women has more than doubled. As of 2010, when nationwide surveys were completed, 75 percent of adults (3 out of every 4) weighed in as overweight, obese, or extremely obese. This is considered by many health experts to be a weight crisis of epidemic proportions. Yet from a psychological standpoint (and quite possibly from a medical one), if you’re otherwise happy and healthy, there’s a lot to be said for accepting yourself at whatever weight you are.

Studies do show that, for some people, even those with no signs of chronic disease, there are serious health risks associated with being overweight, and some groups of people appear to be at higher risk of developing chronic health conditions than others.

Family history certainly plays a role in determining whether or not your weight puts you at higher risk of developing medical problems than the next person. But the truth is, excess weight is not a health problem for everyone. In fact, some studies show that some extra body fat may be protective against death and disease, even against death from heart disease.

There is still much debate among researchers and health experts on the effects of weight on disease, and there hasn’t been enough research on the general population of overweight people to make blanket statements or give clear-cut advice to every individual.

For the most part, the participants in most studies done on the psychological and biological aspects of weight control have been people who sought professional help for obesity or clinical eating disorders. That relatively small number is not representative of the entire population of overweight men and women. There is also a difference between being overweight and obese, and that difference, along with any implications for health, has yet to be fully explored.


1. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Overweight and Obesity Statistics. Accessed May 12, 2016.

2. Brzecka A and Ejma M. Obesity paradox in the course of cerebrovascular disease. Editorial. Adv Clin Exp Med 2015;24(3):379-383

3. McQuillan, Susan. Breaking the Bonds of Food Addiction. 2004. Alpha/Psychology Today Here to Help.

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