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Here's why we need to stop fat-shaming

Making individuals feel guilty and inadequate for their inability to control their weight will only make matters worse, writes Maeve Halpin.

OBESITY HAS DRAMATICALLY increased in the last 30 years, not because we have suddenly become more self-indulgent, greedy or weak, but largely because our socio-cultural environment has altered.

We now live in what has been termed an “obesegenic” environment. Our sedentary lifestyles, combined with an over-availability of cheap processed food, means our surroundings are effectively designed to facilitate obesity.

Inability to lose weight is usually seen as a personal failure, due to lack of willpower, motivation or commitment to goals. Those deemed “overweight” tend to be stigmatised, even by healthcare professionals, as lazy, lacking in self-discipline and non-compliant with weight-loss treatment.

This approach ignores the multiple factors, including genetics, biological adaptations and changes in our social environment, that contribute to inexorable weight gain.

The True Causes of Obesity

Humans are hard-wired to eat for survival, as we have spent most of our long evolutionary history foraging for scarce food in the natural environment. Since the advent of artificial food processing in the 20th century, we are now surrounded by food 24/7.

Much of it is low-cost, brightly packaged, heavily marketed and loaded with fat, sugar and salt. This combination of accessible, attractive and addictive qualities means that our primal desire to eat is continually stimulated, whether we are actually hungry or not.

Food manufacturers know how to create the exact blend of sugar, fat and salt that will stimulate the dopamine “pleasure centres” in the brain, making their products literally irresistible.

These artificial food combinations bypass the brain’s normal hunger/satiety regulation system, stimulating eating behaviour that can be overpowering and compulsive for many people.

A certain variety and abundance of food has always been essential for human evolution, ensuring a broad spectrum of nutrients and a buffer against times of food shortage. Now, however, the availability of food in economically developed countries is unprecedented.

It is found in ubiquitous self-service vending machines and in non-catering venues such as schools, bookshops and cinemas.

The enormous variety of food on offer stimulates highly profitable buying and eating behaviours. As people are attracted to novelty, food manufacturers constantly create new variations of their products. This expanding range of food choices can, in itself, be detrimental to good eating decisions.

When overloaded with information, people tend to go for the simplest option, which can often be the convenient, high-calorie “ready-meal” or snack.

Why “fat-shaming” doesn’t work.

Interventions to address weight loss are typically targeted at the individual, using various calorie-reducing and exercise-boosting strategies. This is based on the belief that making people who are in denial aware of their weight problem will encourage them to seek help and adopt a healthier lifestyle.

But recent research highlights a paradox – feeling bad about one’s weight actually decreases the likelihood of being able to take positive steps to manage it successfully. As people become more self-conscious about their weight, their self-esteem drops and they are more likely to comfort eat and binge. This has particular implications for children with higher body weight, many of whom, if subjected to teasing and “fat-shaming”, will respond by overeating.

This can set them up for a lifetime of ill-health, poor self-esteem and eating disorders.

Inaccurate Stereotypes

In addition to living in an environment that consistently undermines the ability to make good nutritional choices, obese people can suffer weight-based stereotyping. Research shows that those considered “overweight” are often perceived as weak-willed, unsuccessful, unintelligent, lacking self-discipline and having poor willpower.

In reality, once obesity has become established, biological changes mean that the body defends against weight loss. This makes losing weight far more challenging for obese people than the rest of the population.

Experiencing persistent negative stereotyping, whether in relation to race, class, sexual orientation or any other dimension of discrimination and prejudice, is associated with poor mental and physical health outcomes. Unlike other marginalised groups, obese people have no legal protection against the pervasive stigma that they can experience.

The need for intervention

Making individuals feel guilty and inadequate for their inability to control their weight actually reduces the likelihood that they will lose weight. It ignores the reality that many subtle factors that influence weight gain lie outside individual people’s control.

The impulse to eat is a powerful biological drive that is being manipulated by a food industry whose interests lie more in profits than in providing healthy nutrition.

As we have accepted regulation in relation to tobacco, drugs and alcohol, government intervention is required to manage our food environment in such a way that unhealthy options are less visible, accessible and cheap.

When food production, advertising and marketing are designed to overwhelm our impulse control and thus lead to eating addiction, they need to be regulated as a matter of public health. Incentives should be provided for the production and distribution of healthy, nutritious food – especially in our schools.

Following the success of public health interventions to decrease stigma in relation to health epidemics such as tuberculosis and AIDS/HIV, a similar approach is now required towards obesity.

Maeve Halpin is a Counselling Psychologist based in Ranelagh, Dublin 6. Sign up for her blog here

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