The survey, conducted by Harris Interactive/Kid Power Poll of Youth Marketers, found that only one third of Americans believed excess caloric consumption to be the major reason for the increase in adult obesity levels, compared to 83 per cent who blamed a lack of exercise.
Some 53 per cent also blamed lack of exercise for the rising levels of child obesity.
But the food industry did not get off entirely scot-free, with 89 per cent of Americans saying that TV commercials encouraged people to eat or drink more than is good for them. In contrast, just 7 per cent of those questioned said that eating too much was the main cause of child obesity.
A lack of education about a healthy and balanced diet was underlined by the fact that 36 per cent of those questioned thought that eating the wrong type of food was the primary cause of obesity in children.
"We know that people consume more and more calories but only a third of the public see this as a major cause of obesity. This data suggests that many people are either in denial, or they are woefully ignorant, and that most people just eat too much," said Humphrey Taylor, chairman of The Harris Poll at Harris Interactive.
The survey coincides with another report, also commissioned by Harris Interactive/Kid Power, in February which found that the level of obesity among US youth to be a major public health concern - and that the increase in media coverage over the issues of overweight children was warranted and justified.
All of which gives mixed messages to the food - and diet food - industry. Consumers seem to feel that the food industry is to blame for encouraging people to eat more, but at the same time this is not seen as the principal cause of the problem, suggesting that relatively few consumers are likely to change their diets, or eat healthier foods.
Moreover, there is an undoubted cynicism about the food industry's motives - whether consumers eat healthy or unhealthy food is not important, as long as manufacturers continue to boost their margins.
"This is an industry under pressure to define its role in helping to resolve this issue," said John Geraci, vice president of youth research at Harris Interactive.
"Youth marketers understand that providing healthier alternatives is good business as well as good from a public health standpoint. We will continue to see more products positioned as healthy and increased advertising on health-related themes."
Whatever its cause, obesity is becoming an expensive burden on the US taxpayer. In 2003, obesity-related US medical costs were $75 billion, with taxpayers paying up to $175 annually to foot the bill. The US public pays $39 billion a year through Medicare and Medicaid programs, which cover sicknesses caused by obesity including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, gallbladder disease and several types of cancer.
Despite the fact that diet is seen as only a minor part of the problem, a highly lucrative diet food sector has developed on the back of growing consumer concern. According to Marketdata Enterprises, the market is worth over $39 billion and covers everything from low-fat and low-cal products, diet soft drinks, artificial sweeteners and OTC meal replacements and diet pills.
With consumers preferring to opt out of exercise - and reticent to change their diets - it is not surprising that many of them are turning to the easy solution to weight loss - popping pills. According to weight-loss-diet-i.com, sales of diet pills and related supplements have been increasing by 10 to 20 per cent a year since 1997 as more Americans struggle to fight fat without breaking into a sweat.