Our approach to obesity is “unfair, ineffective, and needs to change,” according to scientist Oli Williams presenting at the Margaret Mead Award Lecture of the 2018 British Science Festival. His approach focuses on the social justice issues.
First, he takes issue with the Body Mass Index (BMI), defining obesity as a disease, and our approach to reducing obesity.
Medical professionals like its simplicity, but the presentation of the index by health authorities creates the impression that obesity is a disease. In fact, BMI is an extremely inaccurate predictor of health. Oli doesn’t deny that obesity is associated with increased risks of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer; but the biggest threat to public health posed by obesity, he claims, is our approach to it.
Because health is closely correlated with wealth, Williams believes that societal focus on providing more social support would go further than focus on individual effort.
Instead, people are offered weight-loss groups. And Oli has studied these groups very closely. Participants are encouraged to focus obsessively on losing weight, a process that is unpredictable, challenging and emotionally draining. The rhetorical equation – obesity equals irresponsibility – loads the whole process with stigma, which becomes physically embodied in the participants themselves. One of the most sadly ironic symptoms is an increased level of cortisol – one of the chief functions of which is to store fat in the body.
His final message is that we need more support and less stigma.