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ObesityWeek: Closing the Obesity Information Gap

ObesityWeek 2019 LogoBad habits and bad choices. That’s where the public thinking lies on the subject of obesity. So at ObesityWeek yesterday, a string of researchers told us about their efforts to close the information gap on obesity. They’re looking for ways to warn people about sugary drinks. They’re trying to figure out if posting calorie counts on restaurant menus is working to change consumer behavior. But what is the message that consumers take home? It seems pretty simple.

Obesity is the simple result of bad choices and bad habits, says John Q Public. So let’s order up an Impossible Whopper and move on.

What the Public Understands

ConscienHealth’s Ted Kyle presented research on the public’s understanding of what’s responsible when a child has severe obesity. The public’s answer is pretty simple. Bad habits. In the U.S. and the U.K. that’s the top answer. It’s a little different in France and Italy. In France and especially in Italy, there’s more understanding that excessive marketing of junk food is playing a role. But few people in any of these countries get it that biology and genes play a role. Less than ten percent of the public finds that to be important.

And what does that understanding mean in practical terms? Well, in the U.S. it means that the blame lies with parents. Most adults agree that parents are responsible for the bad habits that they think are the cause of severe childhood obesity.

Responding to Close the Information Gap

Alongside this finding, we heard four presentations on efforts to give people information that will lead them to better choices. Don’t order too many fast food calories for your kids. Those sugary drinks are bad for you. Choose something else. You should know better.

All of this seems to reflect a presumption that consumers make bad choices because of an obesity information gap. They should know better and if we teach them, they’ll do better. But that model – called the information deficit model – doesn’t hold up very well under scrutiny. In fact, at a recent National Academies workshop on effective communications strategies for obesity, Professor Dietram Scheufele urged us to give it up. Telling people what we think they ought to know just doesn’t lead to changes in health behaviors.

One-way, paternalistic communication on health issues doesn’t work. No matter how hard we hammer away at consumers, they will not yield to authority. They want to make their own choices for their own reasons.

Maybe we need to take a different path and meet consumers where they are. Perhaps it’s not an obesity information gap we need to close. But instead, we need to close an understanding gap. Part of that gap is a gap in understanding by the experts in public health.

Click here for the details of yesterday’s presentations and abstracts. For Kyle’s slides, click here, and then here for further reporting on his presentation. Finally, for a perspective on the information deficit model for health communication, click here.

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November 6, 2019