Revenge of the Giant Cheeseburger

“You Can’t Go Eating Burgers and Fries All the Time”

Implicit bias about obesity is a funny thing. In the middle of a conversation about it, someone tells us, “Sure, it’s biological. But you can’t just go eating burgers and fries all the time.” Invite people to share their thoughts about obesity and you get images of a mom gorging herself on a ridiculous burger.

The Implicit Message

It’s hard to miss the message. People do this to themselves. This is not a medical condition, it’s a behavior. It is the logical result of a lifetime of eating junk food. An easy problem to solve. Just cut it out.

The burger trope is a convenient way to mock people. The bias it reflects is a problem for anyone who is serious about obesity. Obesity medicine expert Arya Sharma explained this to us recently:

“Such images are simply unacceptable. Stigmatizing, stereotypical images flatly lay shame and blame on parents or people living with obesity by depicting gluttony and sloth. This does absolutely nothing to promote the science of obesity. In fact, it works against it.”

Reason Wrestles with Bias

Back in 2013, Rebecca Puhl and colleagues studied the difference between helpful and harmful obesity campaigns. They found that stigmatizing campaigns are unhelpful and posed a very basic question. Are we fighting obesity or people who have the condition?

That was seven years ago. It was clear then that stigmatizing messages and images don’t help. But still they pop up everywhere we look. That’s because reason might tell us that it doesn’t help. But our implicit bias pushes us to feel that this must be the product of a bad choice. “You can’t tell me that those people couldn’t do better if they just tried” is something we hear too often.

Everybody Eats

When we hear people talking about obesity in terms of burgers, donuts, or junk food, it’s simply frustrating. There are clearly issues with the quality of the food supply. Most people who spend time thinking about obesity believe it is contributing to a high prevalence of obesity. But the problem is not one single food. It is the whole of what food systems feed us.

On top of that, biological diversity is important. Some people dine on burgers and fries, but live at a low BMI. Some people never eat such things, choose what they eat very carefully, and yet, struggle all their lives with weight. Everyone’s experience is different.

Rebecca Giannini was seven years old when her parents told her that she could not have treats like the rest of her family because she had “no willpower.” She describes the lasting impact of that:

“Two years of therapy at 28 helped, but here I am at 73, still unable to truly enjoy food because it has always been a source of shame and misery.”

In the spirit of doing no harm above all else, obesity campaigners should take care not to attach shame and misery to food.

Click here for the letter from Giannini, along with others representing a wide range of informed and uninformed opinions. Click here for more on the problems of stigmatizing health messages about obesity and other health conditions.

Revenge of the Giant Cheeseburger, photograph © Pete Foley / flickr

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November 25, 2020

2 Responses to ““You Can’t Go Eating Burgers and Fries All the Time””

  1. November 25, 2020 at 10:17 am, Donna Ryan said:

    World Obesity Federation sponsored a youth advocacy campaign and got some great submissions for promoting ideas of youth advocates around obesity and overweight in young people. We endorsed several, but unfortunately not this one. My favorite was a graphic depiction of “Shame and Blame are NOT the Aim”. World Obesity chose not to endorse this one because of the message it seems to send that that overindulgence in “bad foods” is a problem. Kudos to Emily for showing this beautiful mother and her child, but the supersized hamburger sends the wrong message. Emily chose to promote her submission without World Obesity Federation’s endorsement, which is her right, but I hope she will understand our concerns that persons with obesity should not be blamed – their disease is not caused by “bad choices.” Please go to http://www.worldobesity.org for information on obesity and non-stigmatizing images.

  2. November 25, 2020 at 4:16 pm, Ted said:

    Thanks, Donna. I agree with you.