Defining the population at risk, in need or affected by a particular issue helps us to make informed decisions about who to work with and where to direct our efforts to make change.
Consider the following photos and decide if they represent factors or characteristics that should inform our evolving definition of the obese population in Canada.
How might including or excluding these factors affect our definition of the population?
Urban vs. Rural Living
Occupation might well have an impact on our defintion of the obese population. Some jobs require more physical activity than others and this might affect who is attracted to different occupations as well as who is at risk of becoming obese.
2. Urban vs. Rural Living
Where people live can also affect their chances of achieving and maintaining healthy weights, though not always in predictable ways. We might assume, for example, that those living in cities are more likely to become obese because they are forced to rely on cars or mass transit, rather than walking, to get around. It may also not be safe to ride a bicycle in many urban settings.
But living in a rural environment isn’t necessarily much different. Farmers may be more physically active than some people living in cities – due to the nature of their work – but they and their families are also heavily dependent on cars to get to services and walking or riding a bicycle on country roads may be dangerous.
So, we should include where people live in our definition of the obese population, but we must do so carefully.
3. Sexual Orientation
Perhaps surprisingly, sexual orientation is related to obesity. Recent research shows that lesbians are at much greater risk of obesity than women of all other sexual orientations (heterosexual, bisexual and “something other”). The reasons for this pattern are not well-understood, though some researchers have suggested that it may be related to different attitudes concerning body weight and shape. Since we know that unhealthy eating is often a mechanism to cope with stress, we might also ask how stigma and discrimination contribute to higher rates of obesity among lesbians.
Our definition of population should include attention to sexual orientation because while it does not cause obesity, it seems to be a good predictor of risk.
Source: Boehmer, U., Bown, D.J. & Bauer, G.R. (2007) Overweight and obesity in sexual-minority women: evidence from population-based data, American Journal of Public Health, 97 (6): 1134-1140
4. Food Security
Many have argued that rising obesity rates are linked to the amounts of fast food and junk food we eat. Because these foods are high in fats and calories, they are particularly likely to contribute to weight gain, especially if they are consumed on a regular basis.
But reliance on these kinds of foods is also linked to food insecurity – not having a steady and sufficient supply of safe and nutritious food. When people experience food insecurity, they are more likely to rely on high calorie foods, which provide energy and physical satisfaction at less cost than lean meats, fruits and vegetables.
The link between food insecurity and obesity is particularly strong for women.
With an issue as complex as obesity, the list of factors or characteristics to consider is long. While it isn’t practical or even possible to address all of these characteristics, it is important to be precise about who is included in the population under consideration and who is missing from it.
We must also be able to explain why some groups or characteristics have been excluded. Are we short on information and, if so, why? Have we forgotten someone or something and, if so, why? These questions take us directly to the final core concept, equity.