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The Weight of Culture

With obesity rates on the rise globally, a new study finds that national culture plays an important role in creating and sustaining an environment conducive to making choices regarding diet and physical activity.

The study’s authors, consisting of a multi-national team of collaborators, including former WZB researcher Plamen Akaliyski and WZB researcher Jianghong Li, shed light on the puzzlement regarding the vast global variation in obesity rates. For example, obesity rates for the US and Egypt are currently 37.3 percent and 31.1 percent, respectively, but only 4.3 percent in Japan and 4.7 percent in South Korea. At the same time, levels of economic development, globalization, and economic inequalities do not seem to account for much of the global variation in obesity.

Two-dimensional graph depicting obesity in a global country by country comparison

Country positioning on the two cultural value dimensions, and scores on obesity rate (average of male and female) and log GDP per capita.

The team hypothesized that cultural factors may influence behavioral choices regarding diet and physical activity, which in turn impact obesity rates. Specifically, they identified particular cultural traits of nations which may lead to a higher prevalence of obesity. They analyzed data on the variation of such cultural traits in countries around the world using the World Health Organization’s data on obesity. There were two main findings: Firstly, societal individualism is associated with higher obesity rates, although chiefly among men. Secondly, flexibility, a national cultural attribute that emphasizes ”humility”, “self-control”, and “restraint of desires“ is a potent predictor of low obesity in both men and women around the globe. The authors recommend future research to focus on identifying the mechanisms leading to obesity, while policy-makers should aim to exploit the newly available knowledge to devise more culturally sensitive interventions.


9/9/22, fjb

The study "The weight of culture: Societal individualism and flexibility explain large global variations in obesity", co-authored by Plamen Akaliyski, Michael Minkov, Jianghong Li, Michael Harris Bond and Stefan Gehrig, was published in Social Science & Medicine, August 2022.

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In the WZB Talk "A Community of Shared Values?" the co-author of the study, Plamen Akaliyski, talks about the relevance of the "cultural" as an analytical dimension of sociology and cultural integration within the EU. The slides for the talk are available here (PDF).