Overeating is a major social problem. Throughout the history, perception of overeating has been changing with time owing to the changing social, political, and economic situations. Overeating is an eating disorder which is centrally characterized by addiction to food that leads to binge eating. Individuals who suffer from compulsive eating disorder suffer from episodes of uncontrolled eating. It has been shown to have psychological connection as these individuals tend to experience pressured and frenzied feeling. As a result, the individuals continue eating even after they become uncomfortably full. Binge eating tends to be followed by intense guilt and sometimes depression. While bulimics will purge themselves with vomiting or use of laxatives, individuals suffering from compulsive eating disorder rarely vomit or use laxatives and hence they continue to accumulate weight. Overeating has been recognized as one of the factors contributing to increased incidences of overweight and obesity which are major public health concerns.
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Overeating is a social problem which means that the problem has taken different dimensions throughout history. It has been defined and understood in different ways depending on the changing political, social, and economic conditions. Even during the medieval period, overeating was recognized but it was not understood the same way it is understood today. This implies that understanding of the problem has been changing with time and though it was recognized as a sign of wellness in the past, it is considered a major health problem today. Overeating today affects people across the social demographic divide. The problem is today compounded by social values and health concerns. The government has put in place different programs with an aim of mitigating the effect of the problem but little has been achieved. Despite the current understanding of overeating as a social and health problem, and the programs that have been instituted to mitigate its effects, it still remains a major social and health concerns in the world today.
Historical Background of Overeating
Overeating is a social problem that has changed over time. Since the medieval period, overeating has been understood in different ways depending on the changing economic, social, and political environments. The problem has also been understood in different ways depending on the dominant social values and the changing philosophy of social welfare (Levi et al., 2008). Definition and understanding of the problem have transformed with changes taking place in the environment. The current definition and understanding of the problem is very different from how it was understood during the medieval period. In order to define and understand overeating, it is important to first look at the historical definition and understanding of the problem.
Historical understanding of binge eating dates back to the medieval period. At a time when the society was highly stratified, binge eating was understood as a sign of excesses (Tanofsky-Kraff, 2008). It was mainly practiced by those who had excess to eat, mainly those in the upper class. This means that the understanding of overeating during that time was mainly engraved in indulgence since these were only those who could afford plenty of food who ate more. Interestingly, overeating was not recognized as a health problem during the middle ages. Historical accounts have revealed that the ancient Greece and Arabia had texts which showed description of binging and purging which means both were recognized at that time. Also in ancient Rome, historians have shown the existence of constructed ‘vomitoriums’ – places where individuals or feasters threw up food. This is a sign of existence of overeating even at those ancient times. It has recorded that Roman Emperor Claudis who ruled between 10 B.C. to A.D. 54 and Vitellius who ruled between A.D 15 to A.D. 19 were both bulimic. These historical accounts affirm to the fact that eating disorders were recognized as early as 10 B.C.
Although it was not recognized, overeating was the main cause of obesity in ancient times. Obesity, which results from overeating, is an age-old problem whose perception has changed over time. During ancient civilization, obesity was perceived in much different ways just like other overeating disorders. For example, ancient Egyptians considered obesity as disease. There have been wall drawing in Egypt which depicted obesity as an illnesses. There was also the famous statuette of Venus figurines, which depicted the image of an obese female torso and which are presumed to have played major roles in carrying out rituals. Ancient Chinese also showed that they understood the problem of obesity and its effect on the longevity of the problem. The Aztecs firmly believed that obesity could be considered as a supernatural problem which was affliction of gods. Hippocrates, who is regarded as the father of medicine, recognized that there were many sudden deaths which could be attributed to obesity, and this was expressed clearly in his writings.
However, this perception changed from place to place. In areas where food was scarce, overeating and consequential obesity were considered as signs and symbols of wealth and a higher social status. In some African cultures, brides were plumped up in order to prepare them for child bearing period. Before a wedding, a bride was plumped up until she reached the expected weight to assist her to bear a child. This shows that overeating and obesity were perceived in different ways.
However, serious focus on the prevalence of eating disorders did not take place until the 19th and 20th century. At the time, there was great scientific advance which provided for research framework to carry out studies to understand the existence of these diseases. For example, it was in 1979 that a British psychiatrist, Gerald Russell, made official description of existence of bulimia. He is the one who gave it its current scientific name, bulimia nervosa. He had carried out a scientific study between 1972 and 1978 (Munsch and Beglinger, 2005). What sets apart the description of Russell from those of ancient Greece and Arabia is that Russell identified that bulimia was carried out in order to cut weight, while the ancient studies did not identify the reason for existence of binging and bulimia.
Throughout history, overeating has been perceived in different ways. This perception has changed greatly with changing times, especially in the course of 1900’s. For example, French designer Paul Poiret showed that overeating and consequential obesity were unfashionable. Poiret designed skin-revealing women clothes in order to reveal the body image. In the course of the 19th century, the rate of obesity continued to increase at an alarming rate as a result of different factors, among them change in eating patterns, especially overeating and changing lifestyle.
Despite the historical records of existence of binge eating, it had not been recognized as a health problem until 1959. In 1959 psychiatrist and researcher Albert Stunkard first described overeating or binge eating as a social problem (Cooper and Fairburn, 2003). He first described it as ‘Night Eating Syndrome’ and later the term Binge Eating Disorder was used to describe overeating behavior that did not have nocturnal component. This meant that the problem was recognized as a social problem only in 20th century despite its existence for many years.
Although the problem has been observed for a number of years, there has not been any scientific study that looked into the trends of overeating. At the time Stunkard described the problem, he had observed there was increasing number of people who were becoming overweight. He noted that overweight individuals had more incidents of overeating compared to the rest of the population (Levi et al., 2008). The clinical observation convinced Stunkard that overeating was somehow related to obesity and only individuals with obesity showed recurrent episodes of overeating. With increase in the number of obese individuals owing to the changing lifestyle, it was easy for Stunkard to relate the prevalence pattern and the risk it posed to the general population. Since then, there have been several studies that have looked into the problem in greater details. From the perception of a sign of excesses during ancient times, binge eating was now recognized as a health issues (Munsch and Beglinger, 2005). Since Stunkard recognized the problem in overweight individuals, it was not recognized by the medical authorities in the country despite a number of consequent studies that have outlined the effects of the problem. It was not until 1994 when Binge Eating Disorder (BED) was introduced in the DSM-IV criteria. However it was introduced as a provision psychiatric disorder that required further research.
It is important to understand that during 1950s when the problem was recognized as a major social problem, there were a lot of changes that were taking place in the social, political, and economical environment. This period marked the end of the Second World War and the world was drawing the attention away from war and political bickering to focus on social and health welfare of the population. The end of the Second World War ushered the world into a new era that was more focused on social welfare of the people. Since the turn of the century, the world has been much occupied with First and Second World War and the Great Depression that have wiped away wealth and people scrambled for food rations. This means during the period after the end of the Second World War, people could access more food.
Change in technology has been recognized as another factor that contributed to increased incidence of overeating (Munsch and Beglinger, 2005). The changing nature of life, mainly driven by technology, led to food process technologies that made food available outside the kitchen. Traditionally, food was only found and prepared in the kitchen which meant that people had limited chances of eating. However, the introduction of modern food processing technology, especially with the emergence of fast and convenient food, people have more chances of eating and this factor contributed to incidence of overeating. With availability of food in different public spaces, and with emergence of food chains like MacDonald’s, which have been established in almost every corner, people are encouraged to eat more often (Levi et al., 2008). The increased incidence of overeating led to rising cases of obesity and this was one of the factors that drew attention to the issue of overeating.
Changes in social life, especially in working conditions, were another factor that contributed to the increased cases of overeating. Unlike times when people labored for hours in the field, the emergence of office jobs where manual jobs are left to machines encourages people to eat more (Munsch and Beglinger, 2005). As the number of working hours reduced and more work was taken over by machines, people had more time to relax and eat. Even at work, the emergence of fast food meant that people could carry food to work and continued to eat while working.
There were a number of changes at home that also marked increased cases of overeating. The emergence of television sets and other entertainment devices stationed at home meant that people spent more hours watching TV while eating. At the end, they ate more than they would have eaten if they were not watching TV (Munsch and Beglinger, 2005). Apart from positive impacts of technological advancement and wealth creation like having TVs at home, there are other psychological changes that come with change in life that have been pointed out as possible causes of overeating. As people became busy and pre-occupied and the economy changed, the level of stress kept on rising (Levi et al., 2008). High levels of stress and depression have also been pointed out as possible reasons why people engaged in overeating. Research evidence has shown that compared to the past, economic crisis of modern time, where life is centered on economic performance, has contributed to high levels of stress.
It is therefore evident that throughout history, definition and understanding of overeating has dramatically changed in line with emerging social, political, and economic trends. Earlier definition of overeating is quite different from the modern one. Binge eating has changed from a sign of wealth in ancient times to a health problem that is attributed to the changes in the modern lifestyle. While the overeating and obesity have remained a problem for the wealth in earlier times, most of the obese individuals nowadays are found in the middle and low class.
Description of the overeating in youths and adolescents
Since the 1950s, overeating and accompanying overweight and obesity complications have become major public health concerns in the United States. As has been the tradition with the United States government, it responds with policies aimed at mitigating the effect of the problem but rarely puts in place policies to prevent the problem. Since overeating was noted as a public health concern in 1950s, it took the government several years before any policy was put in place to address the issue. With time, overeating, coupled with changing life style including reduced engagement in physical exercises has led to overweight and obesity, which are considered to be the major public health issues facing the country (Tanofsky-Kraff, 2008). Binge eating disorder is currently a major problem that cuts across the whole population. Each and every year, there are millions of Americans who succumb to different threatening eating disorders, but binge eating remains a major problem across the whole population. It is estimated that about 16 million Americans suffer from one or more eating disorders including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa (Tanofsky-Kraff, 2008). However, a higher number, 25 million Americans, are documented to suffer from binge eating. Interestingly, the problem is more pronounced in women than in men. Statistics shows that more than 90% of those who are affected by these problems are women (Hudons et al., 2007). Unlike other health problems that have been known to occur with age, either very early or very late in life, eating disorders occur in the middle life. It has been documented that about 86% of individuals who report eating disorders are slightly below the age of 20, which means the problem starts developing early in life. For example, research findings show that about 11% of high school students have one or more eating disorders, with binge eating being a major problem (Raderprograms, 2010).
However, research shows conflicting results. A number of studies have pointed out that the prevalence of binge eating is not clear in the population. This is because the prevalence differs from place to place depending on the social economic status. However, it has been shown that the prevalence of binge eating in the general population ranges between 1-3% (Bull, 2004). As was earlier observed in 1950s, binge eating remains a major problem facing overweight and obese individuals. A number of studies have clearly shown that among the overweight and obese individuals, binge eating rangers from 25% and more (Bull, 2004).
In adolescents and youth, binge eating has been described as a major health concern. Studies have shown that lost of control eating or BED is prevalent in young people not only in the United States but in the whole world (Tanofsky-Kraff, 2008). Binge eating is associated cross-sectionally with adiposity in children and youth and has been identified as a major factor predisposing them to overweight and obesity. Overeating is therefore a major social problem not only in adults but in youths.
There are several reasons why the society is getting concerned with the problem of overeating. Since the second half of the 20th century, increasing incidence of overeating has attracted public attention owing to the social and health ramification on the general population. Overeating was recognized as a problem associated with obesity. The reason why the society is becoming more concerned with increasing incidence of overeating can be related to the rising cases of overweight and obesity in the population. Obesity is an epidemic in the United States that affects people across the social demographic divide. It is estimated that about three quarters or accurately more than 64% of American adults are overweight while 26% are obese (Levi et al., 2008). The number of obese people in the United States has grown steadily from 19.4% in 1997 to the recent 26.6% in 2007 (Hudons et al., 2007). By 2015, it is estimated that about 75% of the United States population will be overweight while 41% will be obese (Hudons et al., 2007).While obesity has been considered a problem for the aging individuals, demographic prevalence portrays a worrying trend as children and adolescents shows increasing cases of overweight and obesity. In the last two decades, it has been observed that children and youths are becoming victims of complications associated with overeating, with 15-25% of American children considered obese while the number keeps on growing (Tanofsky-Kraff, 2008). Worrying trends show that one in every five children is overweight and has a higher likelihood of becoming obese. By any standards, these statistics are worrying and call for action from the concerned stakeholders.
The above statistics clearly reveals why overeating is considered a major public health concern. What is more worrying is the observation that overweight and obese children and teens are likely to become obese when they grow up to adults. This means that there is likelihood of having a generation of obese adults in the cause of time if nothing is done (Munsch and Beglinger, 2005). Although there are multiple sources which contributed to overweight and obesity, overeating has been singled out as the main cause of obesity in children and teens. A recent study that was carried out by World Health Organization Collaboration Center for Obesity Prevention found out that while researchers have long faulted decrease in physical activity as the main cause of obesity, increase in overeating should rather be pointed out as the main cause of obesity. For children, overeating rather than other compounding factors is the main cause of obesity (RWJF, 2010). If the above trend is anything to go by, then overeating should be a major concern for all individuals in the society and indeed, it is a call for the government to come up with measures to mitigate the effects of overeating in children.
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There are many social, economic, political, and media forces that have garnered to define overeating as a major social problem. Socially, the perception of overeating has been changing with time and today it is no longer perceived as a sign of wealth and excesses but rather as a social problem. Research has shown that children who are overweigh and obese are likely to be bullied or face cynicism from their peers. They are perceived to be irresponsible, which means they suffer socially. This means that overeating is no longer accepted as a social practice as it leads to overweight and obesity (Levi et al., 2008). Economically, people are becoming well off and the living standards have really improved. However researches point out that overeating is not an economic problem as it cuts across the divide, which means even children and teens living in low income areas are suffering from the problem. This means that there are more underlying economic factors, like the model of economy that lays less emphases on hard work that increases calorie consumption which has conspired to aggravate the problem. Political forces that have lead to recognition of the problem include government policies that have defined the issue. In 1994, the government took a bold step to include BED into the DSM-IV criteria which means it was already recognized as a health problem. Through the relevant organizations, the government has funded a number of programs aimed at mitigating the problem (Munsch and Beglinger, 2005). However, the most instrumental force that has shaped overeating as a social problem is the media. Now and then, the media carries out campaigns that are aimed at keeping children out of overeating. The media has been critical of multinational corporations like McDonalds which have encouraged overeating. On the other hand, media portrayal of desired body size, especially for teenage girls, forces them to engage in weight loss programs that lead to emotional binge eating.
The public understanding of overeating is coming to a convergence. As has been reviewed earlier, ancient understanding of overeating was quite different from the modern understanding. There were some societies that encouraged overeating in women to give them strength to bear children while in some societies, overeating was perceived to come with health effects. Nowadays, with the increased understanding of consequence of overeating in reference to overweight and obesity, public definition of the overweight portrays it as a major psychological problem. According to DSM-IV criteria, binge eating is defined as a disorder marked by eating larger than usual amount of food in a short period of time, most specific, within a period of two hours. It is lack of control on one’s eating behavior or eating that cannot be controlled (Munsch and Beglinger, 2005). In this definition, there are important values and ideologies that have are put into consideration. Most important, the definition puts into consideration the health value in belief that while eating is good; it may come with consequential health effects. Concretely, overeating in youths and adolescent is understood as a psychological and behavioral problem that comes with grave consequences especially overweight and obesity. However, overeating is still understood in different terms by different social segments. For some parents, overeating in their children may be a sign of growth in appetite (Munsch and Beglinger, 2005). Parents understand that throughout the life span, children feeding behavior keeps on changing and therefore overeating in adolescents corresponds to nutrients needs in their body, which means they do not consider it to be a problem. However, for others, overeating is already recognized as a major health problem and hence they are doing their best to assist their children to overcome it.
Prevalence patterns show that Binge Eating Disorder affects millions of people in the United States, especially youths and adolescents. However, the problem is more pronounced in females than males. In the United States, the problem affects 3.5% females compared to 2% males (Decaluwe and Braet, 2003). The problem is also more pronounced in individuals who are overweight and obese as more than 30% of individuals seeking weight reduction treatment have shown signs of BED (Decaluwe and Braet, 2003). The fact that binge eating is twice common in females than males shows that the problem is not related to caloric needs as assumed by most parents. The most devastating effect of binge eating is that it leads to health complications like overweight and obesity. Binge eating leads to increased adiposity in children and adults which increases incidence of overweight and obesity. Since the problem cuts across the social demographic divide, including wealthy people and those from low income areas, there are no social injustices which are associated with the problem. Generally, it can be recognized as a problem associated with increase in wealth, modern food processing technology, and changes in different spheres of life (Munsch and Beglinger, 2005).
Social value and political ideologies have impacted differently on the way the problem is viewed. As social value keeps on changing, so has the public perception of overweight and obesity. For example, traditionally, people with big bodies who can currently be categorized obese were valued and viewed as well up. However, this has changed with the changing media perception of ideal body weight. If any, there are few individuals in the society who want to maintain big bodies (Decaluwe and Braet, 2003). This means that if overweight is being viewed negatively in the society, binge eating, which is a causative factor for overweight and obese conditions are also viewed negatively by the people. Politically, there has been less government concern on obesity and overweight until recently when the government took bold steps in face of public threat posed by overweight and obesity incidences to institute measures to deal with the problem, for example inclusion of overeating in DSM-IV (Levi et al., 2008). Overweight and obesity are tied to the political ideology of capitalism which is defining the modern society. In capitalism, individuals amass more, and indulge in culture of consumerism hence driving forward the culture of overeating (Levi et al., 2008).
Overeating can be explained using different social theories. One of the recent theories that have been used to explain overeating is reversal theory which explains overeating as a response to high-tension stress (Sue et al, 1998). This theory has shown that women who engage in weight reduction program suffer from tension and stress which forces them to engage in overeating. The same model has also been expressed by psychosomatic theory which shows that emotional eating results from confusion and apprehension related to emotional states that are in turn related to hunger and satiety (Terry, 2005). Another theory that explains overeating is habituation theory which suggest that when one habituates or adjusts a to food cues, one is less likely to get satisfied and keeps on consuming food (Munsch and Beglinger, 2005). In line with this theory, social learning theory also shows that overeating is a learned behavior that is learned due to physical surrounding and interactions. Cognitive theories have pointed out that overeating is deeply rooted in cognitive process which means it is a cognitively driven process. This means that the brain is motivated to eat more and more with no feeling of satiety (Terry, 2005). In reference to the above theories, it can be deduced that there are biological, social, and psychological causes of binge eating. In biological causes, it has been revealed that body parts and hormones like hypothalamus which control appetite may fail to send correct message for hunger and fullness and hence lead to overeating. Psychological sources have shown that depression and binge eating are closely linked to each other. The U.S Department of Health and Human Services shows that more than half of binge eaters are depressed or have suffered signs of depression in life (Levi et al., 2008). On social factors, it has been shown that social pressure adds shame on binger eaters but this only fuels their emotional eating (Munsch and Beglinger, 2005). Environmental factors like parental practice of use of food to conform children fuels binge eating. A causal chain that explains pathway to overeating may be constructed as follows:
-Social influence – desired body size, peer influence
-Economic influence – change in working patters, convenient and fast food, less physical work
-Media influence – pressure on desired body size
Increased food intake due to positive influence like availability of food, eating while watching TV, and others
Triggered by stress/depression
Depression and anxiety
Overeating causes many health related physical, emotional, and social problems, including overweight and obesity, stress, insomnia, suicidal thoughts, and many others. Depression, anxiety, and sometimes substance abuse have been pointed out to be possible side effects of binge eating (Munsch and Beglinger, 2005). Binge eating also comes with social problems like interference relationship and career.
In terms of effects and benefits, overeating can be looked from two angles, from the point of view of those who benefit and those who suffer from the problem. To start with, there are much more people who suffer from the problem than those who benefit from it. Those who suffer from the problem include individuals who are suffering the consequences of such problems like overweight and obesity, close family and relates who are related to the individual and also suffer from the problem, the government which has to incur billions of dollars in treating complications associated with the problem, and many others (Hudons et al., 2007). On the other hand, those who benefit from the problem include businesses which deal with food and others like pharmacies which sell medical supplements to deal with complications of overweight and obesity.
Currently, there are many programs which are dedicated to mitigation of the problem. It is important to note that most of these programs have taken the approach of providing education to youths and adolescents on causes, effects, dangers, and ways to prevent overeating. While the government has instituted such policies as school feeding policy that encourage healthy eating, most of the programs are run by the private sector in conjunction with the government, most of them existing in their own microenvironment. Some of these programs include Focus Adolescent Services, The Center- A Place of Hope, Eating Disorder Hope, and many others. These programs have used the most accessible information dissemination media, mainly through the internet to reach as many youths and adolescents as possible.
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