Obesity and overweight prevalence is higher than ever. With this, an alarming increase in chronic diseases has been observed. While the obesity crisis is common knowledge, what is less obvious are the underlying factors.
A popular belief about obesity is that the individual is solely responsible for their disease. It’s their own fault they’re fat. This belief stems from what public health professionals are calling weight stigma/bias; the social phenomenon where overweight and obese individuals are perceived as disgusting, gluttonous and with a dire lack of self control. No one forced them to eat that McValue meal, or to choose white bread over wholemeal at the supermarket. They’ve got no one to blame but themselves, right? Well, no. Not exactly.
The obesogenic environment is emerging as a new model that explains the obesity crisis. It is a broad term that describes the physical, environmental, social and financial factors that play a role in promoting obesity. As it turns out, our surrounds are conducive to obesity. Therefore, at least in part, individuals can deflect blame.
Despite Australia being a ‘wealthy’ country, with much of its population living well above to poverty line, many Australian’s do experience at least mild poverty. For example, people living on welfare, the unemployed, those with disabilities that prevent them from working and single income families. This population is larger than what you might think and significantly contribute to the obesity crisis. But how is money related to obesity? Numerous studies that compare the price of healthy to unhealthy foods, show that healthy foods are often more expensive. For a struggling family, healthy foods could take up a larger percentage of the weekly income, so they may find themselves in a situation where they are influenced to compromise health. If tonight’s KFC Family Box means being able to afford rent next month, it seems like a simple solution. This is why mild forms of poverty is associated with obesity and overweight. Can we really blame struggling families for poor dietary choices that are financially justified? I don’t think so.
A startling 90% of advertisements aimed at children are for junk foods. These foods are advertised as fun, cool and exciting to consume on a daily basis. In reality, these foods are not ideal choices. The children at whom these advertisements are aimed, are incapable of thinking critically about marketing techniques. Therefore, believing that junk foods are a good thing, all the time. Children are unable to understand the undisclosed consequences. Hence, a constant desire to consume junk foods is developed, leading to childhood obesity. Seems unethical, right? I do wonder how marketing companies sleep at night, knowing they are making a profit by taking advantage of young impressionable minds and destroying children’s health in the process. Many companies argue they are not directly responsible for childhood obesity, claiming that it is the individual’s choice to consume junk foods. However, when your job is to influence the easily influenced, is individual responsibility really applicable? I think not.
While most of us don’t go around openly ridiculing obese people, most of us are guilty of holding unfavourable opinions about our larger counterparts. Such judgements may not be entirely our own fault. Fat shaming has become an acceptable part of our society, largely fuelled by insensitive, offensive and miss-guided anti-obesity government campaigns. The intention of such campaigns is to motivate change through scare tactics and making people with obesity feel badly about themselves. Making it okay, the rest of us to make them feel badly about themselves, too. Studies have shown such campaigns to be entirely counter productive in the fight against obesity. The fat shaming and weight stigma these campaigns endorse, contribute to the already unhealthy metal state of overweight people. Such a mental state is not conducive of weight loss, and invites dieting that is not healthy, nor sustainable. It really is a vicious cycle. A spattering of organisations have been working to reverse this damage. Health At Every Size aims to eliminate weight stigma, promoting health for health, and not for beauty. Which, is the most sustainable and promising approach to combating the current obesity crisis.
I believe its time to change how we think. Put judgments and stigma aside and address the real underlying issue that are causing the obesity crisis, rather than continuing to mask the symptoms. In order to achieve this, we need government co-operation, a multi-factorial approach and MAJOR change. Seems like a lost cause, a problem too big to be solved. But, we can’t just put it in the too hard basket. We need to do everything we can to reverse the damage done and achieve a healthier, better functioning and happier society.