top of page

Obesity and Welfare

Obesity is a public health problem in affluent societies, and tends to be related to socio-economic level and to gender. It is not just a problem of individual behaviour, but responds to larger social, political and economic changes over the past fifty years. This project follows two environmental approaches to the rise of obesity, namely 1) that market access to cheap, high-calorie food is associated with high national obesity rates, and  2) that obesity rates are influenced by social welfare regimes, and have risen more in market-liberal than in social-democratic societies. The causal mechanism is assumed to be the individual stresses generated by social and economic competition, which are inversely related with socio-economic status, and which appear to be lower in social-democratic societies. The project investigates these hypotheses by means of comparative statistical studies of the diffusion of obesity in different countries, controlling for local characteristics.

Welfare Regimes and Obesity: Analytical Approaches

Joint meeting - University of Oxford, Copenhagen University, and Karolinska Insitutet, Stockholm

University of Oxford, 8-9 December 2010


Stanley Ulijaszek (University of Oxford)

An overview


Stanley Ulijaszek, Rachel Pechey and Avner Offer

Obesity and welfare regimes: an international, personal-level, comparison


Thorkild Sorensen (Copenhagen University)

Cohorts in the study of obesity


Rachel Pechey (University of Oxford)

Cross-sectional data


Michael Gamborg (Institute of Preventive Medicine, Copenhagen)

Longitudinal analysis using life course path analysis


Finn Rasmussen and Lena Hansson (Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm)

The Swedish Survey of Living Conditions (ULF)


Ola Ekholm (National Institute of Public Health, Copenhagen)

The Danish National Health Interview Surveys 


Rachel Pechey (University of Oxford)

UK and US surveys - Health Survey for England (HSE), and the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS)


Tenna Jensen (Copenhagen University)

Food exposure


Lena Hansson (Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm)

Stigma and stress




Obesity: the Welfare Regime Hypothesis conference

University of Oxford, 2009


Another connection with neoliberalism was explored at a ground-breaking workshop at the University of Oxford in 2009. The common theme of the presentations, drawn from multiple disciplines, was that political structures such as welfare regimes  influence the obesity epidemic. More specifically, higher levels of economic insecurity – associated with market liberalism and the ‘creative destruction’ that Joseph Schumpeter extolled as a defining virtue of capitalism – are causally linked with a higher prevalence of obesity.

Excerpt from ‘How Politics Makes us Sick’ by Ted Schrecker and Claire Bambra, 2015

Perspectives both supporting and refuting the welfare regime hypothesis were presented over the course of a two-day conference on 27-28 November 2009. Preliminary findings were published in a British Academy Review. The conference proceedings are available as a volume edited by Avner Offer, Rachel Pechey and Stanley Ulijaszek, entitled Insecurity, Inequality and Obesity in Affluent Societies (The British Academy, 2012).

Conference Presentations

John Komlos 
(University of Munich)

Trends and socio-economic correlates of obesity

in the United States


Thorkild Sørensen 
(University of Copenhagen)

The history of the obesity epidemic



Adam Drewnowski 
(University of Washington)

Mapping poverty and obesity


Peter Whybrow 
(University of California, Los Angeles)

Obesity and time urgency




Avner Offer 
(University of Oxford)

Welfare regimes and obesity


Stanley Ulijaszek 
(University of Oxford)

Behavioural ecology of obesity




Michael Marmot 
(University College London)

Subordination and stress


Richard Wilkinson 
(University of Nottingham)

Inequality and obesity: the background 


Kate Pickett 
(University of York)

Inequality and obesity: the pathways 



Trent Smith 
(Washington State University)

Behavioral biology and obesity


Robin Dunbar 
(University of Oxford)

Food and the social brain


James Stubbs 
(Slimming World)

Obesity: implementation of behaviour change

in the general population?


Georgina Cairns 
(University of Stirling)

Obesity and marketing exposure



Avner Offer and Stanley Ulijaszek
(University of Oxford)

Welfare regimes and supply shock



Ulijaszek, S.J. (2014). Do adult obesity rates in England vary by insecurity as well as by inequality? An ecological cross-sectional study. BMJ Open 4:e004430. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2013-004430.

Offer, A., Pechey, R. and Ulijaszek, S.J. (2012). Insecurity, Inequality and Obesity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ulijaszek, S.J. (2012). Socio-economic status, forms of capital and obesity. Journal of Gastrointestinal Cancer 43: 3-7.

Offer, A., Pechey, R. and Ulijaszek, S.J. (2010). Obesity: the welfare regime hypothesis. British Academy Review 15: 30-2.

Offer, A., Pechey, R. and Ulijaszek, S.J. (2010). Obesity under affluence varies by welfare regimes: the effect of fast food, insecurity, and inequality. Oxford University Discussion Papers in Economic and Social History Number 82. Oxford: University of Oxford.

Offer, A., Pechey, R. and Ulijaszek, S.J. (2010). Obesity under affluence varies by welfare regimes: the effect of fast food, insecurity, and inequality. Economics and Human Biology 8, 297-308.


Clockwise, from bottom left - Stanley Ulijaszek, Avner Offer, Michael Marmot, Robert Fogel, Robin Dunbar, Peter Whybrow, Trent Smith, Adam Drewnowski, Richard Wilkinson, Tim Lobstein

picket rayner lobstein

Kate Pickett, Mike Rayner, Tim Lobstein


Richard Wilkinson

bottom of page