5 Obesity Conspiracy Theories: Why They Persist

Obesity conspiracy theories — like other medical conspiracy theories — are persistent and pervasive. A new study in JAMA Internal Medicine finds that roughly half of the population believes in at least one unfounded medical conspiracy theory. And it affects how they approach their health. Say the authors:

Although it is common to disparage adherents of conspiracy theories as a delusional fringe of paranoid cranks, our data suggest that medical conspiracy theories are widely known, broadly endorsed, and highly predictive of many common health behaviors.

So it shouldn’t surprise us that unproven explanations for the rise in obesity rates can morph into persistent conspiracy theories that get in the way of scientific dialogue and problem solving. Here are a few candidates for vilification.

  1. Sugar and sweeteners
  2. Fast food
  3. Soda
  4. Government
  5. Medical Industrial Complex

There’s plenty of good reason to believe that sugar, fast food, and sugar-sweetened sodas have contributed to the excess of obesity. But the precise role and relative contribution of each in comparison to a hundred other suspected factors remains uncertain. Sorting this out requires objective scientific data and debate. And reversing the problem will almost certainly require action by some of the organizations vilified as conspirators.

Government agencies, particularly USDA, are seen by some as co-conspirators, promoting excessive, unhealthy consumption of agricultural commodities. Others see a vast conspiracy by the government to manufacture a fictitious obesity crisis and medicalize the normal diversity of body size. The medical industrial complex is seen as a co-conspirator in this effort.

All such thinking is a natural reaction to a threat. Dealing with a threat to health and happiness is easier when we have a recognizable enemy. “I think scientific thinking is not a very intuitive way to see the world,” says Eric Oliver, lead author of the study.

We need more solid science and fewer conspiracy theories to make real progress against obesity.

“More things in politics happen by accident or exhaustion than happen by conspiracy.” — Jeff Greenfield

Click here to read more from Reuters about the medical conspiracies study and here to read the study itself. Click here to read a reasonable essay on how food cues and triggers conspire to promote obesity.

Conspiracy, photograph © Giulio Magnifico / flickr

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