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health & weight

On this page you’ll find:

  • Obesity

  • Weight-Loss Marketing

  • Weight Bias


Obesity is the one of the biggest public-health concerns in our society today. There have been some positive outcomes on this concern, such as addressing food portion size and control, food quality (including nutritional information), and encouragement of physical activity. However, our language and the media’s language to describe this obesity issues is quite negative—”war on obesity,” “epidemic,” and “America is getting fat,” for example. These headlines cast a negative feeling and a sense of blame on those individuals struggling with obesity.About-face is concerned about the negative messages and “blaming” tone that so often accompanies efforts to address obesity.

We are also concerned about the amount of unhealthy, processed foods in our society and how sedentary we have become. We believe the focus needs to be on lifestyle and community. Encouraging people to support local farmers, eat healthy foods and be active are the goals that need to be prioritized in our work to address obesity. We believe in creating change through community building and helping those communities who need resources and support. Weight is an emotional topic. Partly because of a media environment that encourages it, people invest incredible amounts of time, energy, and money in controlling their weight. Our bodies, especially our appearances, contribute strongly to our identities. These next sections on obesity, weight-loss marketing, and weight bias present some statistics and the many factors involved. The point here is to illustrate the complexity of the obesity issue.

  • Statistics on Obesity

    • Obesity has been more precisely defined by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a BMI of 30 and above. (A BMI of 30 is about 30 pounds overweight.) The BMI (body mass index), a key index for relating body weight to height, is a person’s weight in kilograms (kg) divided by their height in meters (m) squared. [Medicine.net, 2001]

    • Since the BMI describes the body weight relative to height, it correlates strongly (in adults) with the total body fat content. Some very muscular people may have a high BMI without undue health risks. [Medicine.net, 2001]

    • Obesity is often multifactorial, based on both genetic and behavioral factors. Accordingly, treatment of obesity usually requires more than just dietary changes. Exercise, counseling and support, and sometimes medication can supplement diet to help patients conquer weight problems. Extreme diets, on the other hand, can actually contribute to increased obesity. [Medicine.net, 2001]

    • During the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States. In 2000, more than 64% of adults in the United States were either overweight or obese. [The Obesity Society, 2007]

    • This figure represents a 14% increase in the prevalence from the same study conducted between 1988 and 1994 and a 36% increase from that study conducted between 1976 and 1980. [The Obesity Society, 2007]

    • Roughly 59 million American adults are in the obese group (Body Mass Index more than 30), which is at the greatest health risk. (Please note that these data are based on the participants’ weights and heights as actually measured by trained health professionals using standardized measuring equipment. [The Obesity Society, 2007]

    • The lifetime risk of developing Type 2 diabetes for a Hispanic female born in the United States in the year 2000 is 1 in 2. [Ogden et al., 2006]

  • Childhood Obesity

    • Childhood obesity has become the most common pediatric nutritional problem in the United States [Dietz, 1998]. The prevalence of obesity in U.S. children is continuing to increase.
    • Between 1963 and 2006, the percentage of children in the United States who are obese tripled from 4.5% to 18%. [Ogden et al., 2006]
    • As of 2003-2004, 18.8% of 6- to 11-year-olds and 17.4% of 12- to 19-year-olds in the United States were obese (Body Mass Index of 95th percentile or greater for age and gender.) [Ogden et al., 2006]
    • Black, Hispanic, and Native American children and teens are at greater risk of being overweight than their white peers.Mexican-American: 23% of children ages 6-11 and 16% of teens are obese
    • Black: 22% of children ages 6-11 and teens are obese
    • White: 18% of children ages 6-11 and 17% of teens are obese [Ogden et al., 2006]
    • This increased prevalence is problematic because obesity that occurs early in life and persists throughout childhood is difficult to treat. [Dietz, 1998]
  • Weight-Loss Status Among “Overweight” and “Obese” Adults 

    • Not surprisingly, many adults brood over weight issues, and some groups more than others.61% of all U.S. adults think about their weight often, and 78% of those who are obese think about their weight often. [Harris Interactive, 2007]
    • 36% of all U.S. adults are happy with their current weight. The satisfaction dips even further among obese adults (12%). [Harris Interactive, 2007]
    • 36% of adults have tried to lose weight in the past; 41% are currently trying; and 23% have never tried to lose weight. [Harris Interactive, 2007]
    • 78% of overweight and 96% of obese adults have tried to lose weight at some point, and 37% of overweight and 39% of obese adults have tried to lose weight in the past and stopped their efforts. [Harris Interactive, 2007]
    • 51% of overweight adults and 44% of obese adults are not extremely motivated to lose weight. [Harris Interactive, 2007]
    • The majority of adults, especially obese individuals, are concerned about their health. [Harris Interactive, 2007]

These facts suggest how complex issues of obesity are. It is not a simple issue related to diet and exercise. Obesity is a complex interaction of multiple factors. Some are modifiable (behavior) while others are not (genetics). Other risk factors are related to complex social issues (e.g. poverty, culture). Beginning in 2005, the public-health community began shifting the dialogue away from a paradigm of “personal responsibility” to address the larger environmental issues that influence eating and physical activity. [Harris Interactive, 2007]

Weight-Loss Marketing 

Going on a diet has become a regular American activity, especially for women. In fact, it has become normal for women to dislike their bodies and want to lose weight. Weight-loss marketing is big business, full of products and programs all designed to sell the promise of weight loss and, according to the programs, happiness.

  • The dietary-supplement industry represents a substantial and growing segment of the consumer health-care market. Industry sales for 2001 were estimated at $17.7 billion. The supplement category encompasses a broad range of products, from vitamins and minerals to herbals and hormones. [Nutrition Business Journal, 2002]
  • Many girls do not recognize how advertising evokes emotional responses or how visual and narrative techniques are used to increase identification in weight-loss advertising. Girls react in the following ways [Hobbs et al. 2006]:
    • By responding to texts emotionally by identifying with characters.
    • By comparing and contrasting persuasive messages with real-life experiences with family members.
    • By using prior nutrition knowledge and recognizing obvious deceptive claims like “rapid” or “permanent” weight loss.
  • Girls were less able to show skills to recognize persuasive media strategies including message purpose, target audience, and awareness of economic factors such as financial motives, product credibility enhancement, and branding.
  • The Ad Council’s 2007 obesity prevention ads 
    • The Academy for Eating Disorders (AED) states its strong opposition to “obesity prevention” ads. In 2007, they responded to a series of ads developed by the Ad Council on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

    • The Ad Council’s 2007 obesity prevention ads can be seen on the Ad Council’s web site.

      • In particular, the AED opposes ads that “disrespected the human body by dismembering it.”

      • The AED statement describes the possible negative outcomes of these “prevention” ads:

      • Instead of helping viewers realize the intrinsic benefits of increased activity (playing with one’s children, for instance), the ads encourage viewers to see activity as primarily, if not exclusively, a means of dramatic weight loss.

      • The ads further normalize the stigmatizing of fat and fat people. Extensive research indicates that stigmatizing fat does not encourage pursuit of a healthy body, which includes vigor and stamina [Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2006]. Rather, it makes fat people feel worse, reinforces irrational fears of fat on a societal level, and fuels an irrational drive for thinness. [Brownell et al., 2005; Eisenberg et al., 2003; Kraig and Keel, 2001]

      • Recent research also indicates that increased body dissatisfaction, which is encouraged by the ads, predicts unhealthy behaviors and attitudes, NOT motivation to increase healthy behaviors. [Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2006]

      • The ads falsely support the perception that diet and exercise will result in specific weight reduction in specific body parts that one does not like. Although the relationship between dieting, exercise, and weight loss (and weight gain) is a complicated and often controversial one, research shows that targeted weight loss is not a realistic outcome of diet and exercise for the majority of the population.

      • Research investigating body dissatisfaction, which is rampant among women and which contributes to the development of eating disorders, indicates that a tendency to treat one’s own body as an “object” from an external perspective and to view one’s body in parts (instead of as a functional whole) is a problem for many women. [Grabe et al., 2007; Tiggemann and Lynch, 2001] These ads encourage body dismemberment and self-objectification.

      • The ads falsely connect reduction in specific body parts and changes in appearance as being a marker for good health.

        • Many individuals who are at a healthy weight and engage in healthy behaviors experience body dissatisfaction and may view themselves as having a “belly,” etc.

        • In contrast, some individuals who are very thin may reach this weight by engaging in very unhealthy behaviors, such as those associated with eating disorders.

        • Ads suggesting that the primary goal of health behaviors is weight loss inadvertently discount the importance of these behaviors for everyone, including those who are naturally slim.

        • Thin people who are sedentary are at risk for adverse health consequences [Stevens et al., 2002; Gaesser, 2003], and research supports the importance of diet quality independent of weight. [Michels and Wolk, 2002]

        • Ads such as these need to highlight the very real physical and mental health benefits (e.g., improved cardiovascular status, decreased depression, improved energy, etc.) that increase as a result of replacing a sedentary lifestyle with an active one. [Hallal et al., 2006]

Weight Bias                                        

  • The social consequences of being overweight and obese are serious and pervasive. Overweight and obese individuals are often targets of bias and stigma, and they are vulnerable to negative attitudes in multiple domains: places of employment, educational institutions, medical facilities, the mass media, and interpersonal relationships. [The Obesity Society, 2007]

  • Overweight children and teens are commonly teased or ostracized by their peers, and sometimes treated differently by teachers and even parents. This treatment can lead to low self-esteem, poor school performance, avoidance of physical activity, and, in the most serious cases, depression and suicide. [Norman, 2007]

  • Research has long demonstrated the weight bias that heavy children face. In a classic 1961 study, 640 subjects between the ages of 10 and 11 were shown six pictures of other children their age: one child was overweight; one was normal weight; and four had some form of physical disability. When the study participants were asked to rank the children in the order of whom they would like to be friends with, they ranked the overweight child last. [Norman, 2007]

  • Some studies found that a sizable number of teachers harbor negative views of overweight students, seeing them as “untidy,” for example, or less likely to succeed than their thinner peers. Other research found that overweight children often report teasing from family members, including parents. [Norman, 2007]

  • Not much is known about the long-term consequences of such weight bias. But studies show that victimized children and teens have higher risks of eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, and physical health problems, such as high blood pressure. They may also avoid exercise because of teasing. Avoiding exercise could increase their odds of developing Type 2 diabetes and heart disease down the road. [Norman, 2007]

  • Research shows that focusing on healthy behaviors instead of weight alone can produce positive health outcomes.

  • Lifelong healthy behaviors (increased physical activity, consumption of more fruits and vegetables) improve health outcomes regardless of weight change.

  • Improved self-efficacy and boosted self-esteem can improve health outcomes.

  • Small, consistent changes over time add up.

  • Modest changes in dietary intake and activity that result in a 110 to 165 kcal/day decrease can stave off further weight gain in some children.

  • Eliminating 1 soda per day (at 150 kcal) is an example of such a change. [He et al., 2006]