The Politics of Obesity Messages

The politics of obesity messages — how the problem is framed — determines how different segments of the public will respond to calls for action. New research from the University of Minnesota, Johns Hopkins, and Cornell adds to our understanding that political ideology shapes our view of obesity.

Sarah Gollust and colleagues looked at different ways of framing the consequences of childhood obesity. They studied how these different frames affected support for policies to address childhood obesity. The consequences that moved people with different political ideologies were distinctly different. Political conservatives responded strongly to the effect on military readiness. Bullying was important for moderates, and healthcare costs were important to liberals.

Gollust, who has devoted herself to understanding the intersection of public health and politics, commented on the importance of this sort of research:

Trying to understand what motivates people in a really evidence-based way could help us better design and target public health messages to appeal to people, to appeal to their values in a way that matters to them.

Others have considered how the frame for obesity affects the public’s engagement. Regina Lawrence predicted almost ten years ago that support for more effective policies would require a shift in framing obesity. An exclusive focus on personal responsibility and personal risks was a barrier, she said. Consideration of social responsibility and involuntary risks was needed.

Colleen Barry and colleagues from Yale examined how beliefs and metaphors for the causes of obesity have a great effect on support for policies to address the disease. Explanations that blame people with the condition were effective for blocking action, while environmental, economic, and social causes led to more support for action.

Considering this body of research, the importance of AMA’s decision to finally recognize obesity as a disease becomes more obvious than ever.

Click here to read more from Minnesota Public Radio and click here to read the study by Gollust et al. Click here to read more from Regina Lawrence and here to read the study by Barry et al.

Little Message, photograph © Marco Abis / flickr

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