Obesity Policy: Improving Health or Promoting Stigma?

Bad obesity policies can be worse than nothing at all. You might ask, how can this be? The U.K. obesity strategy provides a case in point. No doubt, the intentions are good. High rates of obesity make the population of the U.K. vulnerable to especially bad outcomes from COVID-19. But flashing danger signs without giving people meaningful options for better health is not helpful. In fact, describing people living with obesity as a burden to health systems serves mainly for promoting stigma.

Yet that is a key message coming from this obesity strategy published by the U.K. Department of Health and Social Care:

We owe it to the NHS [National Health Service] to move towards a healthier weight. Obesity puts pressure on our health service.

If all people who are overweight or living with obesity in the population lost just 2.5kg (one-third of a stone), it could save the NHS £105 million over the next 5 years.

This is important, says the strategy, because it “would reduce pressure on doctors and nurses in the NHS, and free up their time to treat other sick and vulnerable patients.”

It’s hard to imagine a clearer expression of the thought that caring for people with obesity is a waste of time.

A Weird Way to Talk About Health

But if you understand obesity as a serious health condition, this is a weird way to talk about it, says Lavinia Bertini from the University of Sussex. Bertini has studied the discourse around obesity management in the U.K. and how it is promoting stigma. She recently explained to Flora Southey of Food Navigator:

Unfortunately, most strategies that have dealt with obesity management in the UK are very much focused on individual responsibility and motivation. This can really perpetuate negative stereotypes that depict individuals with obesity as lazy, and lacking in control and motivation.

Promoting Stigma, Worsening the Problem

This approach is a serious mistake because it leads to worsening the problem. Promoting stigma in the culture leads people to blame themselves for their health problems. In turn, self-stigma leads to worse health outcomes. So promoting stigma serves to deepen the problem of obesity.

Blame for People with Obesity, UK SE DE ITAlready, we know that weight stigma is especially prevalent in the U.K. Much of the public thinks people with obesity are at fault for their condition. Public opinion has been slow to accept  obesity as a medical condition. Thus, anything that promotes weight stigma serves to make a bad problem worse.

A strategy that points fingers at people with obesity rather than offering care to improve our health takes everyone backwards. It ensures that obesity will become a larger problem.

Click here for more on concerns about U.K. policies that promote fat phobia.

Self-Portrait, photograph © Mike Fritcher / flickr

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September x, 2020