By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD
Last week the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation predicted that obesity rates will climb to over 44 percent for every state by 2030 — with some states, such as Mississippi, over 60 percent!
This, along with other news, got me thinking about the obesity epidemic and the war America has waged. I believe focusing solely on obesity is making matters worse, and we can all benefit from revamping how we approach this issue. So here is my wish list for addressing our nation’s epidemic (and most importantly, why):
Education instead of stigmatization: Obesity is probably the most well known, but misunderstood, diseases out there. Waging a war on obesity has had negative side effects.
According to a 2008 study published in Obesity from 1995 to 2005, weight discrimination almost doubled in the U.S. Worse yet, a 2007 study found that overweight children are increasingly being stigmatized by their peers, teachers and parents, from ages as early as 3!
“There’s a common perception that stigma will provide incentive,” says Dr. Rebecca Puhl, director of research and weight stigma initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University. “People need to understand that when individuals are shamed, it can reinforce weight gain.”
Puhl explains that we need to change the message to better reflect the complex causes of obesity instead of something that is seen as easily changeable. She points out that “telling people to lose weight is not a tangible behavior.” But many believe that they should be able to magically turn thin, even though science shows this is no easy feat.
Healthy Habits instead of Weight Loss: Puhl’s recent study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, revealed that the most motivating messages made no mention of weight or obesity at all! But the campaigns viewed as stigmatizing to weight were the least likely to improve health.
“The kind of language that we use, supportive versus shaming, makes a difference,” Puhl says. “When campaigns focus on healthy behaviors and simple actions to improve health, people report feeling more motivated to change their behavior.”
Another reason focusing on weight is a mistake is healthy habits make a difference, regardless of weight. A recent study published in European Heart Journal showed that physically fit obese people were at much lower risk for cardiovascular disease when compared to non-fit obese individuals.
How instead of What: The solution to obesity is almost always focused on what people eat, which only increases confusion. In fact, the International Food and Information Council’s Health and Nutrition Survey found that Americans find doing taxes a simpler task than improving diet and health.
What if campaigns asked people to pay attention to how they eat by focusing on regular meals, eating at the table, paying attention to fullness, and enjoying quality food? Giving people more practical tools to get the right amount of food for their bodies, along with simple nutrition advice, can do wonders.
Lasting motivation instead of quick fixes. Research shows that internal reasons for engaging in healthy habits are more compelling than external ones, including the number on the scale and even health outcomes.
“In contrast to health and weight, our research on women suggests that benefits from exercise that are immediately experienced, like reduced stress and improved mood and energy, transform exercise into a more compelling activity to fit in,” says Michelle Segar, Associate Director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy (SHARP) Center for Women and Girls and Researcher at the University of Michigan. “People can actually turn things around by changing their reasons for exercising.”
So I say, instead fighting the war on obesity, we should help people fall in love with energizing habits. Let’s stop making weight the deal breaker and start SHOWING people what many of us already know: Healthier choices are much more than “shoulds,” they actually help us feel and live better.
How do you feel about the war on obesity?