Addressing the obesity epidemic:
Don’t blame the victim
BY DR. SUZANNE BENNETT JOHNSON • APA PRESIDENT
The United States leads the world in many areas; unfortunately, obesity is one
1 Two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight and one-third are obese.
This has not always been the case. U.S. obesity rates have escalated rapidly
in the last 20 years. In 1990, no state had an obesity rate of greater than 19
percent. By 2010, no state had an obesity rate of less than 20 percent.
2 In fact,
in the United States, being overweight has become the “new
The cost of the obesity epidemic is enormous. Obesity
is now the second leading cause of the death in the United
States — just behind smoking — and is expected to become
the leading cause.
3 Unless the obesity epidemic is successfully
addressed, life expectancy will decline in the United States, with
our children having shorter life expectancies than we do.
Obesity underlies a growing diabetes epidemic, with all the
co-morbid disorders that entails: heart disease, kidney failure,
leg amputations, blindness.5 Obesity and its co-morbidities will
have a profound economic impact on our health-care system.
Health care for obese individuals costs more than for normal-weight individuals, and the costs increase with increasing
levels of obesity. The annual health-care costs for people who
are extremely obese are almost twice those of normal-weight
people. Very sobering is the fact that severe obesity is increasing
at a much faster rate than moderate obesity, quadrupling from
Some have argued that focusing on obesity only further
stigmatizes overweight people. There is no question that
obese individuals face stigmatization and discrimination in
employment, education, interpersonal relationships, health
care and the media.
7, 8 Psychologists have played an important
role in highlighting the pervasiveness of weight bias and its
multiple serious negative consequences. Overweight children
and adults are stereotyped as lazy, unmotivated and lacking
7, 9 In other words, overweight people are
often blamed for their condition and as a consequence, some
believe the solution to the obesity epidemic is one of personal
But stigmatizing people in this way is counterproductive.
There is no evidence that it motivates people to make healthier
stress and unhealthy eating and deterring people from
7, 9 Further, by blaming the individual, the real culprit
behind the obesity epidemic — an obesogenic environment
— can be ignored. The obesity epidemic is not the result of
an increase in laziness and a decrease in motivation and self-
discipline in U.S. adults and children. The fast food industry
— a central player in our obesogenic environment — carefully
Psychologists must lead by addressing
public policy and the multiple factors
that create the obesogenic world we
live in every day.
targets the minority populations who suffer most from
high obesity rates,
10 while arguing against New York City’s
restriction on the size of sugary drinks as unfairly restricting
11 It is no accident that industry-supported
groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom: Promoting
Personal Responsibility and Protecting Consumer Choice12
create Web and other information products for the public such
as obesitymyths.com, which, in my mind, is misinformation
that promotes obesity as a personal choice, but is very good for
their bottom line. As psychologists, we know that blaming the
victim does not work. Psychologists must lead by addressing
public policy and the multiple factors that create the
obesogenic world we live in every day. n
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choices and in fact may have the opposite effect, increasing