The Face of a Problem

If There’s No Solution, Is It Even a Problem?

When you read news feeds about obesity day after day, one thread is unmistakable. It’s a problem. A huge problem. The cost runs into trillions of dollars in the U.S. It’s making whole countries more vulnerable to COVID-19. Stories about this big, bad, terrible problem never end. But solutions are not getting so much play. So with such an imbalance between problem and solution, people start tuning out.

If you don’t have a solution, people don’t want to hear about the problem you’re hyping. Or worse, they look for a scapegoat.

HIV, AIDS, Fear, and Stigma

This scenario is nothing new. Think back to the 1980s, when AIDS first emerged. It captured public attention with scary headlines about a mysterious, inevitably fatal disease. Quickly enough, scientists identified the virus that caused it. But coming up with effective treatments took considerably more time. The reaction was two-fold. First came the stigma and blame. It was labeled a “gay plague.” That brought fear and stigma that led people at risk to avoid testing.

Fear, stigma, and denial persisted as long as real solutions were lacking. When a problem has no solution, it hurts to think about it. After a time, more and better treatments emerged. By the early 2000s, HIV had become a manageable chronic disease. Fear and stigma faded somewhat. People came to understand the importance of getting tested and dealing with it. Denial and avoidance became less of an issue.

COVID Polarization

Right now, with COVID-19, the threat is obvious. Many millions of people are infected and soon a million will have died. Yet, in the U.S., COVID-19 is a political flashpoint. Again, we find ourselves with a big problem and not a lot of great solutions. Yes, we have tools for prevention. Masks and social distance can prevent infections and save many lives. But the messaging about the solutions has been mixed – far from a robust, unified campaign to rally the public.

So public discourse degenerates into a debate about a “solution that’s worse than the problem.” Significant numbers of people question how bad the problem really is. Political warfare erupts around whether opening schools is safe or not. “Open up” is a rallying cry for people who prefer to dismiss the problem – especially in the absence of a tidy, effective solution.

Balancing Problem and Solution

We can do better. And when it comes to obesity, we must do better. Hyping the health and economic burden of obesity has become counter-productive. At one extreme, some in the U.K. are very close to suggesting that people with obesity “will bankrupt” the NHS. At the opposite extreme, some fat activists and Health at Every Size® advocates are peddling misinformation about obesity. Some go so far as to deny that it’s a problem.

These are two predictable results from overhyping a health problem while offering little in the way of constructive solutions. But we do have good solutions available to us. Scientific curiosity and objectivity is bringing us better understanding of obesity, how to prevent it, and and how to care for people who are living with it.

It’s time for less hype about the problem of obesity and more effort toward delivering care and other solutions.

For further perspective, click here, here, and here.

The Face of a Problem, photograph © Bennilover / flickr

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August 8, 2020