Obesity is now tied with cancer as a leading national health concern, but Americans still think a lack of willpower to shed pounds is a main cause for weight issues.
A large majority of people believe obese individuals should be able to summon the willpower to lose weight on their own, according to a survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, an independent research institution. Obesity, which affects one-third of Americans, is caused by interactions between environment and genetics, with little to do with sloth or gluttony, researchers said.
Three-quarters of the 1,509 survey participants said the best treatment for obesity is to take responsibility for yourself by going on a diet and exercising. Obesity specialists call the survey results alarming, saying that the findings go against evidence about the science behind the disease. They add that it showed outdated ideas about obesity.
“It’s frustrating to see doctors and the general public stigmatize patients with obesity and blame these patients, ascribing attributes of laziness or lack of willpower,” said Donna Ryan, an obesity researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in an interview with The New York Times. “We would never treat patients with alcoholism or any chronic disease this way. It’s so revealing of a real lack of education and knowledge.”
Ninety-four percent of survey participants who were obese had tried to lose weight with diet or exercise without success. One quarter of those people said they tried five to nine times to lose weight, and 15 percent said they tried more than 20 times.
“Trying 20 times and not succeeding — is that lack of willpower, or a problem that can’t be treated with willpower?” asked Louis Aronne, the director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Center at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian.
Obesity specialists list a number of reasons for obese people to seek medical help, including side effects of certain medicines. Penny Gordon-Larsen, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, said while diet and exercise aren’t useless, there are more factors involved with obesity.
“We need people to understand what options are there,” she said.
Lifestyle advice on how to lose weight depends on whether the concern is with prevention or treatment. If the concern is treatment, it depends on if the individual is extremely obese, obese or just overweight, Gordon-Larsen said.
The study found that misconceptions about obesity can be persuasive, with 60 percent of those surveyed saying that diet and exercise were more effective than weight-loss surgery. Sixty-eight percent said they believed it was riskier to stay obese than to have weight loss surgery.
Scott Kahan, an obesity medicine specialist and assistant professor at George Washington University, said medical professionals can be as misinformed as the public. He said doctors don’t usually learn about obesity during medical training.
Raul Rosenthal, president of the bariatric surgery society, said the belief in the power of exercise and diet was hard to understand.
“If you think a disease is a potential killer, as serious as cancer, why would you take on its treatment and cure by yourself?” he said. “The reaction of people to something that is a potential killer is mind-blowing.”