Why the media gets it wrong on obesity

“I’m not overweight”, writes columnist Katrina Grace Kelly in The Australian.  “I’m just the helpless pawn of a vicious corporate conspiracy”.

Amusing read, but it also illustrates why public health researchers are failing to cut-through with governments and the broader community on obesity.

“The ‘obesogenic environment’ is the culprit here, apparently”, Kelly writes, referring to a recently-released report from the Obesity Collective, and to recommendations from the Senate Select Committee into the Obesity Epidemic in Australia.

“The creators of the obesogenic environment are government, society in general and the harbingers of all evil – corporations, specifically, companies in the food and beverage sector, now being referred to as Big Food.”

She adds: “We are fortunate to have researchers on the public payroll, so they can conduct studies to arrive at such previously unimaginable conclusions”.

 

It’s all personal responsibility, stupid

Kelly’s beliefs about obesity illustrate why the problem is so hard to tackle at a population level.

The dominant framing of obesity as purely a matter of personal responsibility seems obvious, intuitive.  No one is force feeding us, right?

But it has a downside: if you’re fat, look in the mirror, you only have yourself to blame.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the proportion of adults who are overweight or obese has increased from 56% in 1995, to 67% in 2017-18, with an additional 900,000 adults becoming overweight in the 3 years since the previous survey in 2014-15.

There is a troubling trend here, but for many people, it’s difficult to accept that the causes of the trend might be different from the causes of an individual’s obesity.

 

Personal policy, and public policy

If you are obese, having greater personal responsibility is an excellent suggestion – it’s an excellent “personal policy”.

But it turns out to be a rather silly and unproductive explanation for the trend towards population weight gain.

For one thing, personal responsibility is not a new idea; in fact, it’s a strategic failure, so urging people to have more of it is unlikely to reduce obesity rates in future.

Viewing obesity in terms of the failure of personal responsibility also means that the dramatic trend towards weight gain over the past couple of generations – affecting many millions of people in most countries of the world – is best explained in terms of an unprecedented, mass deterioration in self-control.

Who could have guessed?!

Framing obesity in terms of individual responsibility probably does little to help those who are obese, although it might make the rest of us feel smug.  It also deflects attention from both the causes of, and the solutions to, the problem at a population level.  And that’s what healthy public policy needs to be directed towards.

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