Psychology Fights Obesity (2012 Nov)

by Barry A. Liebling

Obesity is certainly not desirable. There is no question that you are better off if you maintain a healthy weight. According to official government statistics the incidence of obesity in the United States has increased markedly during that last 20 years. The challenge is to find ways of helping Americans stay slim while respecting everyone’s individual rights. Commanding people with the threat of force to refrain from eating, serving, or selling fattening foods is not the answer.

How can psychology contribute to solving the obesity problem? While there are many sub-specialties and orientations among psychologists most would agree that two major factors are important. The first is internal to the individual. A person’s genetic profile, physical characteristics, opinions, attitudes, beliefs all fit into this category. It is significant that internal attributes encompasses a person’s self-control, volition, and free will.

The second factor is the environment that is external to the individual. This includes things like the availability and price of different foods, messages from various institutions, advertising, and what influential people say about the importance of staying at an appropriate weight.

Psychologists differ according to how much importance they attach to internal factors compared to external factors. At one extreme are those who emphasize personal responsibility. These professionals assert that the key to successful weight maintenance is individual understanding, motivation, and the acquisition of skills that keep a person on course with healthy habits. Programs that fit into this category include special diets, exercise routines, individual and group coaching, and deliberately avoiding situations where overeating is encouraged. Nearly all of the programs do the job for some people some of the time, and none are universal panaceas. The salient goal for psychologists who value personal responsibility is to develop new ways of persuading people at risk for obesity that they should act and helping them find actions that work.

The other extreme is typified by psychologists who reject the concept of personal agency and fixate on the external environment. To these professionals corpulent individuals are not merely influenced by their surroundings, they are controlled. According to this view overweight people – and those who try to help them – might think they have free will, but their belief is an illusion. The key to treating the obese is to change their surroundings. Have the fat – or potentially fat – person live in a space where it is not possible to overeat.

Dr Suzanne Bennett Johnson, the president of the American Psychological Association (APA), is a strong advocate of the external environment school. In a column written for members of the organization she encourages her colleagues to do something about the “obesity epidemic.” Her argument is an excellent example of how APA officials (but not all psychologists) are wedded to the philosophy that all problems arise from the private, profit-making sector, and the solution is always more government intervention.

The president of the APA makes assertions about the capabilities of the obese and about the root cause of the problem.

Dr Johnson regards overweight people as helpless victims who, even with professional assistance, are unable to initiate action that will keep them healthy. She completely dismisses the idea that they can take charge and manage their lives better. The president rejects the notion that the solution to the obesity problem relates to personal responsibility and categorically states that “the obesity epidemic is not the result of an increase in laziness and a decrease in motivation and self-discipline.”

Her conclusion is not plausible. If it were true how do some overweight people successfully get on the right course and live a healthy life? The obvious answer is that they are motivated, have self-discipline, and have discovered a routine that works for them. Psychologists could make important contributions by studying how healthy (but formerly fat and at risk) people are able to develop and maintain the right habits.

Dr Johnson complains that overweight people “are stereotyped as lazy, unmotivated and lacking in self-discipline.” She goes on to say “stigmatizing people in this way is counterproductive.”

Certainly, it is not necessary or even advisable to insult the people you are trying to help. But consider this. What is a bigger blow to your self-esteem: that you are failing to act properly and are ultimately responsible for your weight or that you have no agency and are a helpless pawn in a world completely beyond your control?

Implicit in her description of overweight people as victims is that there must be a perpetrator. Someone must be up to no good. And here is the payoff. A major cause of the obesity “epidemic” is the fast food industry. With its marketing and advertising efforts it targets those who are most vulnerable to putting on pounds. It has the temerity to oppose New York City’s restriction on the size of sugary drinks. The industry has campaigned to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choice – a policy that Dr Johnson points out “is very good for their bottom line.”

Notice how blaming the fast food industry meshes with the mainstream leftist agenda. Private, profit-oriented companies are viewed with suspicious, unsympathetic eyes. They have to be subdued and tamed by the “wise,” strong hand of government. In her article Dr Johnson urges psychologists to “lead by addressing public policy” which means more commands from a busybody government. She cites references from organizations that advocate additional laws – imposing taxes and limits on foods that “ought to be forbidden,” subsidizing foods that Americans “should be induced” to consume, and putting new restrictions on how food companies can do their marketing.

This is a case of the proposed cure being far more dangerous than the alleged disease. Americans can prosper only if they are free to make their own choices without coercion. It is not obvious what Dr Johnson considers more important – making the overweight slimmer or punishing those who do not share her “public policy” vision.

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