WHO says Obesity is an Epidemic? How Excess Weight Became a Public Health Crisis

Hanna Grol-Prokopczyk, University of Wisconsin at Madison

This paper examines how and why obesity came to be considered an epidemic, or even a global pandemic, in the mid-to-late 1990s. (Why not decades earlier? Why at all?) Four decades’ worth of medical journal articles and bestselling diet books are reviewed to identify developments that paved the way for the concept of the obesity epidemic. These include (1) the diffusion of BMI as a standard measure of weight-for-height; (2) acceptance of World Health Organization-recommended BMI cutoffs to define excess weight; (3) the appearance of reliable, widely-known estimates of obesity prevalence, based on nationally representative surveys; and (4) the gradual dissipation of a number of prejudices, driven partially by psychoanalytic theories, that predicated a wide gulf between a deviant obese minority and a non-obese majority. The focus is on adult obesity in the United States, though if time permits childhood obesity and/or international obesity will also be addressed.

Presented in Session 2: The Obesity Epidemic: Evidence and Hypotheses