Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Social context must be taken into account when tackling obesity

Even when alone, what you choose to eat is influenced by who you are – your gender, age, ethnicity and background for example. I am particularly interested in the way that social class influences what teenagers and their families eat. For a number of years I have been conducting interviews with teenagers and parents from different social class groups. In the paper I have just published with colleagues in the Sociological Review, we use the example of two families, the working class Watsons and the middle class Connell family to illustrate not just the different foods that they eat but the way that their beliefs and values inform their eating habits.

The Connells had lots of foreign holidays with their daughters, ate in restaurants and encouraged their children to try new foods, widen their tastes and taught them the importance of doing so. It was considered unacceptable by Mrs Connell for her girls to be ‘fussy’ eaters – that is, to not accept the values the family wished to instil in them. In the Watson household, the emphasis was on ‘getting by’ – everyone eating what they wanted, when they needed to, to ensure that daily life could proceed as smoothly as possible.

The context for everyday eating was very different for our families, with the Connells describing a secure lifestyle where food, eating and health could more easily be prioritised. For the Watsons, life was more chaotic and insecure. Some of our working class participants worried daily about their children in terms of who they were with inside and outside school, whether they were drinking or smoking and also whether their neighbourhoods were safe. In this context, whether children were eating breakfast simply became of lower importance.

When trying to tackle inequalities in diet and obesity it is incredibly important that social context is taken account of. This is not easy and very often policy tends to favour the middle class approach to diet and health. This is not helpful for those from lower social class groups and we urgently need to find ways of capitalising on the good things that many disadvantaged families are doing in terms of feeding their children.

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