Obesity is not a choice and should not be treated as one, states psychological report

‘Psychological experiences play a big role’

Olivia Petter
Monday 23 September 2019 16:47
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Obesity is “not a choice”, states a new report from the British Psychological Society (BPS) that calls for changes in how people regard those who are obese.

While BPS does not support the classification of obesity as a disease, as the World Health Organisation does, it stresses the importance of avoiding “language and explanations that locate the ‘problem’ of obesity within individuals”.

The report explains that obesity is more complex than a person’s lack of willpower, as negative stereotypes suggest.

Whilst obesity is caused by behaviour, those behaviours do not always involve ‘choice’ or ‘personal responsibility’,” it explains.

“The people who are most likely to be an unhealthy weight are those who have a high genetic risk of developing obesity and whose lives are also shaped by work, school and social environments that promote overeating and inactivity.”

The BPS also points out that those living in deprived areas may be more susceptible to obesity because they might have less access to affordable healthy food options. Additionally, those living with major life challenges and traumas might be less incentivised to be physically active.

“Psychological experiences also play a big role,” the report continues. “Up to half of adults attending specialist obesity services have experienced childhood adversity.”

The report touches on “emotional eating” and says that those who diet frequently may be more inclined to overeat when they are feeling particularly vulnerable.

Angel Chater, a chartered psychologist at the University of Bedfordshire and one of the report’s authors, said: “Adult obesity levels in England increased by 18 per cent between 2005 and 2017, and there were similar increases in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

“This cannot be explained by a sudden loss of motivation across the four nations of the UK. The increase in obesity can, in part, be attributed to changes in the food supply and physical activity environment.”

To address the problem, Dr Chater says we need to understand how weight management and behaviour changes for obesity prevention are informed by psychology.

Sarb Bajwa, chief executive of the BPS, said the government should tackle the issue of obesity in a similar manner to smoking.

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“It has taken action at all levels for decades, from government policy to helping individual smokers, but we are now seeing significant reductions in the level of smoking and the health problems it causes,” Mr Bajwa pointed out.

“Psychologists have the science and clinical experience to help the health service do the same for obesity.

“We can help, not just by devising ways of helping individuals, but also by advising on public policy that will help create an environment in which people find it easier not to become obese in the first place.”

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