Five Groups That Understand Obesity Is More Than Personal

Obesity is more than personal — it’s a medical problem and a community problem. Progress toward more evidence-based approaches to obesity is often hampered by convictions that obesity is a simple personal problem of bad choices. To shed light on perspectives of the public and healthcare professionals about obesity, ConscienHealth founder Ted Kyle and colleagues presented new research at Obesity Week 2013 in Atlanta.

They surveyed a representative sample of 10,556 U.S. adults, as well as 1,077 doctors, nurses, dietitians, and health policy management professionals. The central question was “Which phrase comes closest to describing the type of problem that you think obesity is?” The options were: personal problem of bad choices, community problem of bad food and inactivity, medical problem, or a totally different kind of problem.

Not surprisingly the most common response from the general public was “a personal problem,” given by 40% of respondents. Healthcare professionals were less likely to give that response. Here are the five groups that stand out in the analysis as better understanding that obesity is more than a personal problem.

  1. Doctors. The group most likely to understand that obesity is a medical problem is physicians. Among physicians, 38% see obesity as a medical problem — significantly more than the general public, and significantly more (p<0.05) than other healthcare professionals.
  2. Dietitians. Nutritionists and dietitians are significantly more likely (p<0.05) than physicians or health policy and management professionals to see obesity as a community problem. Though the absolute proportion of nurses who view obesity as a community problem is lower than dietitians (30% vs 36%), the difference falls short of statistical significance.
  3. Young People. Adults 18-44 years old were less likely than older adults to view obesity as a personal problem of bad choices.
  4. Women. Obesity is an issue, even more than some other health issues, that women think about more than men. So perhaps it’s no surprise that women are more likely to understand that obesity is more than personal.
  5. Urban Dwellers. Perhaps this explains why New York City has has been so adventurous in trying alternative approaches to the conventional wisdom in addressing obesity. Urban residents are significantly less likely than suburban and rural residents to view obesity as merely a personal problem.

Word Cloud
Granted, obesity is a complex problem that may not fit into a single neat category. But a forced-choice probe like this is a reasonable way to get an understanding of the dominant paradigm for different people. It’s worth noting that only about 10% of respondents chose “something else” for their response. The word cloud on the right depicts the explanation that those respondents offered.

Click here to read more details of this study presented at Obesity Week 2013

Scary Gargoyle, photograph © Martin Gommel / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.