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Obesity Shaming Doesn’t Work – Stop THAT Cycle

August 10, 2014

Last month I was in Rome to give a talk at the International Society for Political Psychology annual conference. To start my talk I asked the international audience to tell me what things came to mind when they thought of the United States of America. While I expected answers like: the flag, New York, and hamburgers one of the first answers I got was “obesity.” I was clearly not expecting that answer, but it wasn’t at all surprising. According the Centers for Disease Control over one third of Americans are currently obese. While the measurement of obesity is controversial it is clear that many Americans carry more weight than people in most other countries. And spending two weeks in various European cities made this very obvious to me.  Almost everyone I encountered was at or very close to what seemed like a “regular” weight in spite of a plethora of indulgent foods.

Recently, Strong4Life, an organization focused on reducing the obesity rates in children, released a video that quickly made it to the front page on Reddit and has already popped up a few times on my Facebook feed. It’s titled “Rewind the Future – Stop the Cycle:”

It begins with a 32-year-old, 300-pound man arriving in the hospital due to a heart attack. The attending doctor asks, “How the hell does that happen?” The video then rewinds from the point of view of our heart attack victim to see his eating habits over the last 30 years, which have notably been pretty bad. Many times during the video it’s his mother giving him sweets, fries, and juice which leads to the boy wanting those things over other foods. The last segment is of mom giving her son fries as he’s crying in his high-chair. A friend says, “I can’t believe you give this child french fries,” to which mom responds through a smile, “I know, it’s the only thing that will make him stop.” Words on the screen then warn parents that their child’s future doesn’t have to look like the man’s on the gurney fighting for his life due to a lifetime of poor eating habits.

While this video tends to be called “powerful,” I would say it’s only feeding the cycle – the cycle of shame – instead of ending it. Because one thing we know about how to reduce obesity is that if shaming fat people worked, we would have no fat people. And shifting that shame to parents is not going to work either. 

Recent psychological research on stigma and discrimination has focused on the discrimination against obese and overweight people, because it is one of the few prejudices that can be expressed without much social consequence. While people know it’s socially inappropriate to say things like, “Black people are just lazy, everyone knows that,” it’s acceptable to most people to say that about the obese. But if we look at this situation on an international scale then that logic turns into: Americans are simply lazier than people in other countries, which is why the obesity rate is so high. And I don’t think a lot of Americans would be okay with that logical conclusion.

So let’s look at what else is potentially different between ours and other countries. For anyone who has traveled across the Atlantic and come back, one of the things you are likely to notice is simply the availability of food in the U.S. Food is EVERYWHERE. And advertising is billions of dollars of investment, thousands of hours of market research, and a lot of hard work in crafting the messages to convince people to buy that food. The sheer amount of food advertising in the United States is staggering compared to what I experience in other countries. Pump gas at the local gas station and the screen now shows the foods available in the convenience store. They remind you to “fuel up” for your trip. Even watching television is a completely different experience. Have you ever noticed how many ads are for food? We are constantly thinking about food because we are constantly being told to think about food.

I know that many people believe all it takes is willpower to say no to these foods. But again, if that’s all it took then you would reach that same conclusion that for some odd reason Americans are afflicted with a severe deficiency of willpower. That seems unlikely right? But if there’s one thing you can bet on it’s that food companies do not invest money in advertising their products because it doesn’t work. That’s why it’s called an investment, the returns are worth it in the end. To add insult to injury, most Americans would say that they experience a fair amount of stress, and research shows that people under cognitive load (something is on their mind) find it harder to make good, well thought-out decisions. Instead, you go with the easy decision. And for us, humans who evolved to take advantage of high-calorie foods – which is why sugar and fat taste so damn good – that decision is usually not the best one for our waistlines. The overwhelming availability of food paired with scientifically engineered messages create a culture in which grabbing a soda with 21 grams of sugar is the norm at the gas station, grabbing snacks for a three-hour car ride seems practical, and using food as an energetic pick-me-up is not questioned. And that’s not even touching the cultural belief that food is a reward, something I’ve written about before.

My take away is not that parents or individuals are free of all of the blame. But my point is that we cannot ignore a culprit that is taking advantage of our biology and psychology: the food companies. Because believe me, as long as we keep blaming individuals for the obesity issues we face today, they will continue to make money hand over fist on our ailing health.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Harold C. permalink
    August 11, 2014 2:49 am

    You’re still shifting the blame, but from the individual and his parents to some random entity called “food companies”. Which food companies, what do they do? Who is in direct control of your life? I don’t disagree that these companies are horrendous and purposely market and make their food to maximize profit. We all know, that Salisbury steak dinner lathered in gravy tastes better than flavorless broccoli. But why do they need to do anything? They are a third party.

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