Obesity isn’t a behavior: let’s stop framing it as such

What is obesity?

There is one camp that views it as a disease, like proponents of the American Medical Association’s stance on the issue.

Others see it more as a “risk factor,” an intermediary that predisposes someone to associated diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Then there are others who fall more into the “obesity as a side effect” camp, which sees obesity more as a byproduct of more fundamental metabolic dysfunction.

But across all camps, I think it’s fair to say that many experts do NOT view obesity as a “behavior.” By equating obesity to behavior is to say that it’s purely a choice. If you’re overweight or obese, it’s you’re fault. You made the wrong choices and didn’t behave in the correct (i.e. healthy) way.

Here, take this full sack of blame and carry it on your shoulders.

Yet here are 5 few things you can’t choose and are linked to obesity:

  • Your parents
  • The type of birth you had
  • Whether you were breastfed or not
  • Whether your mom was exposed to endocrine disruptors like BPA during pregnancy
  • Whether you received multiple courses of antibiotics before the age of 2

This is what makes the recent reporting on this cancer study particularly concerning. Researchers from Harvard School of Public Health and Medical School looked at two major cohort studies to identify lifestyle factors that might predispose someone to developing cancer. The headline reads, “4 behaviors that may cut the risk of cancer by 30 percent” and goes on to list “maintaining a healthy bodyweight” as one of those 4 behaviors linked to an increased risk of cancer.

I’ll spare the methodological details, but my main point has to do with the framing of the results. I’m all for prevention and looking at so-called upstream factors to prevent a major cause of death in the US and globally. There’s merit to this. But by framing obesity as a behavior, which this article does, we continue to reinforce a stereotype whose downsides are far greater than its upsides.

Obesity isn’t a behavior nor is it entirely a choice. Let’s stop framing it as such.


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