Reason to Rethink Obesity Awareness Campaigns

An intriguing new study of the relationship between obesity awareness and subsequent weight gain has stirred up important questions and a few stupid headlines. Eric Robinson and colleagues studied self-perception of overweight as a risk factor for subsequent weight gain or loss. Since many public health campaigns aim to raise awareness about obesity, it’s well worth studying.

What they found, like so many things in obesity, was counter-intuitive. Thinking of oneself as being overweight — regardless of actual weight status — carries an increased risk of subsequent weight gain. So is it really helpful to point at someone and tell them they’re overweight? Though this study raises the question, it doesn’t provide a definitive answer. Robinson explains:

The key thing is that we conducted observational research – we didn’t manipulate whether or not people identified that they were overweight and then examine what happened, we just watched what happened to the weight of people who do vs. do not identify as being overweight. It is tricky to interpret in terms of a public health point of view, but a very robust finding.

Strong4Life AdNaturally this finding was misinterpreted by our friends, the headline writers. “Study: Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign may actually make people gain weight,” was the headline in The Week. Nevermind that Let’s Move! was not the subject of this study.

Now the question is out there. Do we care about awareness or outcomes? If awareness campaigns (like National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month in September) are evaluated, they’re usually evaluated by asking: did this succeed in raising awareness? But we should be asking: is this actually helping?

We have plenty of reasons to believe that finger-pointing and shaming is not.

Click here to read the study and here for more perspective.

You! Photograph © Daniel Horacio Agostini / flickr

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August 8, 2015