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social determinants of obesity

Right now, major North American media outlets are buzzing with excitement over the emergence of ground-breaking weight loss drugs like Ozempic. As treatments proliferate, however, the causes (and potential consequences) of obesity remain the topic of heated debate. In Social Science & Medicine, researchers Jaeun Lim and Benjamin Cornwell consider the likelihood of obesity in relation to social networks and individuals’ positions within them.

Using data from a longitudinal national survey, Lim and Cornwell investigate the association between participants’ body mass index (BMI) and their “structural position,” defined as their location, level of connection, and strength of relationships within a group or community. The findings indicate a strong connection between obesity and structural position: Obesity is more prevalent among people who are marginalized, have fewer connections, or have weaker social relationships within their networks. In hypothesizing the mechanisms that could explain this connection, the authors note that those in marginalized positions may have more limited access to social support, resources, and health and wellness information. They also point to the ways social norms and behaviors within the network can impact an individual’s behaviors, including diet and exercise. The role of homophily, or the inclination for people to hang out with those who are similar to themselves, is also mentioned; if a person’s social network is predominantly made up of obese people, the risk of that person being obese increases.

New science has suggested and is being used to make the case that obesity is strongly shaped by genetics. This paper moves away from individualization to provide a sociological counterexample, uncovering potential community-level drivers of obesity and suggesting ways social network structure can be leveraged to affect individual outcomes.