Charles Perkins Centre Research Nodel Inaugural Event

Business, Markets and the Social Context of Health

4th April 2014

The Business of Health Research Network held its Charles Perkins Centre Research Node Inaugural Event at the University of Sydney Business School's CBD Campus;

Topic: Obesity, Eating and Consumption from a Biocultural Perspective

Guest Speaker

Professor Stanley Ulijaszek
University of Oxford
Professor of Human Ecology & Director of the Unit for Biocultural Variation and Obesity


  • Professor Paul Griffiths
    Associate Academic Director, Humanities and Social Sciences, Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney

  • Professor Catherine Waldby
    Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Sydney

  • Professor John Buchanan
    Director, Workplace Research Centre, University of Sydney

Stanley Ulijaszek Professor Stanley Ulijaszek began his talk by referring to evolving human nutrition and the implications for public health.

He sketched in the context and history of the obesity phenomenon. The post war industrialisation as the start of affluent suburban lifestyles which included the automobile and the industrialisation of food, leading to a life of 'convenience'. In the USA: cheapness of food, the industrialisation of Beef, corn, soy and sugar as well as the proliferation of cheap goods, and mechanisation of daily life lead to this point in the 2000s. It is driven by economic inequality and access to food and health care in the 1980 on creating structures of obesity such as the structure of markets, built to sell more.

In the second section of his presentation Professor Uljiaszek outlined the evolution of sweet tastes in human populations.BMI he pointed out are related to detection of sweet tastes, the bigger primates detect very low levels of sugar and bitterness. He linked this to the growth in human population's desire for sweet consumption. The high fructose corn sugar in the US has grown since 1990 driven by industrial production of corn sugar. The convenience aspect of food is being taken to extremes, fruit juice smoothies and breakfast drinks remove the 'inconvenience' of digesting fibre, this disrupts the natural working of dopamine and neurotransmitters in human brains.

He then spoke of the evolution of human tastes for fat. The hominids began to eat protein in larger quantities, and human ancestors evolved by a diet reflexivity, adjusting to high protein diets easily. In the current period of human evolution, protein diets are also processed foods, which 'fools' the primate brain and body, disrupting the body's ability to process and rid itself of excess protein, but getting better at storing the fat too efficiently.

The Desocialization of food, eating between meals and eating alone lead to social uses of food to indicate social uses of food, class and consumption.

Finally, Professor Uljiaszek finally put all these elements together to show how the convergence of sugar, fat using culture in forms of cuisinary practice created a culture of obesity built on ' convenience' as a goal of consumption.

Professor Paul Griffiths addressed the Ontogenetic niche in bio cultural evolution. He used the example of the cowbird. It's entirely hard wired genetic characteristics were shown to be easily 'rewired' by being exposed to new stimulus. He introduced the idea of flexible systems that can move down several possible developmental paths and is not its final static stage. Evolutionary impulses are focusing on complex optimisation problems, at each point in time. Shifts across nutritional patterns are used to optimise outcomes...survival and reproduction. The solutions lie in matching up the nutritional systems and genetic systems.

Professor Catherine Waldby focused on the relationship between Capitalism and fat (referencing Prof. Ulijiaszek's work on the welfare state hypothesis on obesity as an epidemic). She talked about the use of the fat body (it's a wonderful life) in popular culture. She spoke of Capitalism's symbolic use of the fat body, for example, the corpulent body as a representation of exploitation of labour while the representation of the poor thin exploited body was represented quite differently.

She spoke of the role of gender in the growth of obesity in the post war era and the industrialisation of food and 'surplus'.

The entry of women into the economy, provisioning and meal preparation is increasingly being outsourced. It created the reorganisation of the household and the collapse of the 'housewife' function of the 1950s. Food is increasingly being used to serve the social function of distinctions and class. Fitness as a paid for activity, which is a 'rich' activity.

She closed with the point about the State as withdrawing from the responsibility of welfare and therefore devolving to the consumer citizen to source proper food and fitness, through processes of individualisation and responsibilisation of its citizen consumers.

Professor John Buchanan summarised Professor Ulijiaszek's work in terms of Food as social and cultural practice. He focused in on the relationship between patterns of state structures and the overall data on national obesity data. He re-emphasised the overall point made in Professor Uljiaszek's work about obesity being a 'disorder of convenience' and his call to 'put back some inconvenience' into everyday life, in the food we eat, the workplaces we spend much of our lives and if necessary 'manufacturing ' such inconvenience into work, leisure and entertainment.

A lively discussion followed, interweaving the social and bio-cultural factors influencing and affecting obesity in populations. This continued over lunch and beyond.