Nearly everyday the news makes reference the growing obesity crisis that is sweeping the west. Despite common knowledge of the risks associated with being overweight, the financial costs that it puts upon healthcare systems, and the benefits of an active lifestyle, efforts to change attitudes and behaviours have so far done very little to reverse the trend.
You could place the blame on a number of factors; increasingly sedentary lifestyles, food prices/promotions, time constraints, lack of information in terms of budgeting and cooking. Undoubtedly some of these factors cross over into the realms personal responsibility, but there is also another big factor that never seems to even cross people’s minds. Perception.
When news articles contain images of overweight individuals or groups of people, what they are actually showing are images of people who are obese, or morbidly obese. As visual aids to news reports, these images are chosen for maximum impact and to highlight the seriousness of the report. But when we are constantly bombarded with these images, our perception begins to change – we now cannot so easily recognise when people are overweight, because in comparison to the images we often see, these people are noticeably smaller. There are numerous articles outlining this problem, a few years ago The Sun reported that a poll found that “51% of parents cannot spot a child who is clinically obese“, the NHS highlighted that many teenagers are unaware that they are overweight, and diabetes.co.uk reported that “more than a third of obese adults perceive themselves as being just overweight; a fifth of overweight adults think that they are healthy“. The problem? That we don’t recognise that there is one in the first place.
In many countries, not just the UK, our perception of weight-loss is highly distorted. People joke that adopting a healthy lifestyle will consist of eating “rabbit food” for the rest of your life, caught in an endless cycle of eating bland salad after bland salad. These stereotypes are not productive, and they don’t accurately reflect reality. Fad diets are not the way to tackle obesity, and as a summer camp featured in I Know What You Weighed Last Summer proves, it is all about education and learning to adapt to your surroundings. The camp recognises that fast food chains and unhealthy choices are everywhere, and that it is unrealistic to expect young people especially to give them up completely – instead they encourage the young people to make good choices when confronted with these obstacles, choosing healthier options within their calorie allowance.
It is not what we expect, and so perhaps changing our perception of obesity could be the very thing that helps tackle the problem. After all a lot of people think that the obesity crisis is restricted to wealthy countries in the West, wrong – it may surprise a lot of people to know that Tonga is the world’s most obese country, that Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have extremely high obesity rates. That developing countries such as India have seen a massive rise in obesity, particularly amongst the rich, after adopting western cuisines and fast food chains. This is global epidemic, and we can’t wait any longer to turn things around.