An obesity epidemic is sweeping across the globe—with dangerous consequences for both our medical and economic health. Here’s a snapshot:
- In less than 30 years, Canadian obesity rates have tripled. One third of Canadian children and more than half of adults are overweight or obese. A full quarter of those adults and one in 10 children are
- The costs associated with being overweight or obese have soared to more than $7 billion a year since 2010 globally.
- Around the world, more than 2 billion people are overweight or obese, which costs global economies $2 trillion a year—about the same as the price of armed violence, war and terrorism combined.
- Startling statistics, but it may only be getting worse: experts believe that by 2025, 70 million children will be overweight and obese.
What’s the solution? Can’t we just recommend that overweight people go on diet and exercise programs to shed those excess pounds? Unfortunately, as decades of using this approach have shown, this strategy simply doesn’t work. By no means do I claim to have the answers, but I’d like to raise some points to consider:
1. We must show more courage to try new approaches. It is fairly well known that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages is strongly associated with developing obesity. We also know that simply telling people to consume less sugar doesn’t work, so other strategies are worth considering:
- taxing sugar-laden products like pop
- legislating against advertising sugar-laden foods to children (or even against advertising to children in general)
- limiting maximum portion sizes of sugar-sweetened beverages.
- mandate listing the amounts of added sugar on food labels
Unfortunately, each time such initiatives are suggested, special interest groups lobby aggressively to prevent implementation. Until communities—from local to global— stand up to those special interest groups we will continue to see very little progress.
2. We must support more and better research. Our failure to curb the current obesity epidemic underscores our lack of knowledge in this field. We need more obesity-related scientific research to underpin our understanding of this disease, how it develops, and how we can best address the problems it creates. Plus, we must demand rigorous regulation and oversight to ensure that only high quality science informs the strategies that emerge.
3. We must acknowledge that in our efforts to help, we might actually be making things worse. Obesity isn’t just a physical health issue: Psychological implications can be equally if not more damaging. Weight bias and stigma drive mental health issues, which compound and complicate the problem.
Weight bias is caused by a general belief that if we shame or stigmatize people, it will encourage them to lose weight—essentially, we inappropriately blame obesity on individuals’ lack of self-discipline or willpower. Society frequently blames the victim rather than addressing environmental conditions that contribute to obesity.
For many, weight bias and stigma cause social rejection, lower peer acceptance, poorer relationship quality, employment inequities, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, bullying, poor body image, and thoughts of suicide. Among children, being bullied about their weight is linked to missing school, lower grades, and added mental health struggles. Weight stigma also creates and/or worsens unhealthy eating behaviors.
Weight stigma/bias seems to adversely impact physical health, too, creating an ever-worsening vicious cycle: lower likelihood of seeking medical care, poorer quality of medical care when obtained, avoidance of physical activity, lower motivation to exercise, physiological stress, and stress-related increases in blood pressure.
Much can be done to protect the vulnerable from weight bias and stigma and this would go a long way towards helping to curb the many less well-known dangers posed by obesity.