There is no debate that the U.S. – and the world – is struggling with rising obesity that poses a threat to long-term health. The debate is over who is to blame – or if anyone is.
Because the rising rate of obesity coincided with rapid growth of fast food restaurants, they get a lot of the blame. Because the rise in obesity also coincided with the increasing use of high-fructose corn syrup as a sweetner in food, the food industry gets a lot of the blame as well.
In the debate over what to do about obesity, fingers have been pointed at grocery stores and even government policy makers. However, researchers say that if you ask consumers, they are likely to say individuals are to blame for their own obesity.
Not that effective
University of Illinois researcher Brenna Ellison and her colleague, Jayson Lusk at Oklahoma State University, say their research leads them to conclude that creating and enforcing public policies to help reduce obesity and/or encourage healthier food choices may not be as effective as policy makers think.
For example, to give consumers better information about the food they are consuming policymakers have required some restaurants to post calorie information on menus. In some jurisdictions they are taxing sugar sweetened beverages.
Ellison and Lusk asked why aren't these policies working? Why aren't consumers responding to increased soda prices or calorie information on menus?
"Obesity is in the news every day so it would be hard to say that people are unaware of the policy initiatives in place to reduce U.S. obesity rates," Ellison said. "Based on our study results, the more likely conclusion is that consumers' beliefs about who is to blame for obesity don't necessarily align with the beliefs of policy makers and public health advocates. In the United States, we're known for being an individualistic-based society, so it's not exceptionally surprising that we would put this responsibility for obesity on ourselves."
The survey was conducted by Clear Voice Research, which asked 774 consumers to assign blame for the rise in obesity, with seven choices: individuals, parents, farmers, food manufacturers, grocery stores, restaurants and government policies.
The results were unambiguous. They showed that 94% of people surveyed believed individuals are primarily or somewhat to blame for the rise in obesity, with parents coming in second at 91% primarily or somewhat to blame.
On the other hand, survey respondents felt farmers and grocery stores were relatively blameless for the rise in obesity. And there was at least one surprise.
"We learned that farmers and people who received food stamps were more likely to blame government and farm policy," Ellison said. "That seems off. You wouldn't expect that opinion from people who are benefiting from those policies; however, these individuals could be in the best position to observe the potential harm that some government policies create."
Why is it important?
Why assign blame? Because until you can find out what's causing the problem, it's hard to address it effectively. For example, if individuals are indeed to blame for their expanding waistlines, giving them information about calories may not change their behavior if they simply don't care. They have to want to process the information and order a salad instead of a triple bacon cheeseburger.
There are many reasons to avoid obesity, most having to do with health. Obesity increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Carrying extra weight places stress on knee and hip joints.
Whether individuals are to blame for their own obesity or whether other factors are at work is a matter for debate. After all, the rise in obesity has been relatively sudden, coinciding with more sedentary lifestyles and changes in diet. But what consumers in the survey seem to be suggesting is the solution lies, at the heart of the matter, with individuals. Solutions, the researchers suggest, need to focus on individuals.
"Unquestionably, U.S. obesity and overweight rates are much higher than they were 20 or 30 years ago so it is not surprising that policy makers and public health officials are looking for potential solutions,” Ellison said. "That being said, if individuals view obesity as a personal problem, how confident can we be that these solutions will work? We need to be realistic about the solutions we're proposing and implementing, and if people are not buying into them, they may need to be re-evaluated."
There is no debate that the U.S. – and the world – is struggling with rising obesity that poses a threat to long-term health. The debate is ove...