What’s wrong with personal responsibility when it comes to obesity?

By Maggie Hennessy

- Last updated on GMT

"What is the alternative to personal responsibility? Do we want consumers to feel like they have no control over their choices?" said Brenna Ellison, co-author of a study on the public's perception about who's to blame for obesity in the US.
"What is the alternative to personal responsibility? Do we want consumers to feel like they have no control over their choices?" said Brenna Ellison, co-author of a study on the public's perception about who's to blame for obesity in the US.
Despite improving numbers among US adults in recent years when it comes to daily calorie intake, quality of food eaten and use of nutrition labels when available, the country’s collective weight is still a major concern, as more than a third (35%) of US adults are considered obese. 

Obesity has earned the designation of “epidemic” by some groups, and has sent health officials, policymakers and researchers alike searching for a solution. It’s been the subject of ongoing blame-shifting among the public and private sector, as policymakers tout federal programs to curb obesity and food and beverage companies and restaurants note their own pre-emptive efforts to cut out trans fats, and reduce salt, sugar and fat in their products.  

But a national survey by two food economists published in a recent issue of Appetite​ revealed that most Americans (80%) believe individuals themselves—not agribusiness or government-farm policy—are primarily the ones to blame for the rise in obesity. 

The effects of an individualistic culture

Jayson Lusk, Oklahoma State University, and Brenna Ellison, University of Illinois at Champaign–Urbana, conducted a survey of 800 adults nationwide to determine who the public perceives as most contributing to the rise in obesity and why. The second most blameworthy group, according to the results, was parents, with 59% ascribing primary blame. Food manufacturers followed, with more than a third (35%) feeling they were primarily to blame for the rise in obesity. Half the respondents said government policies were not to blame, but the remaining half thought the government was either somewhat or primarily to blame. The only groups deemed blameless for the rise in obesity by a majority of respondents were grocery stores and, particularly, farmers.

The results may suggest that setting and enforcing public policies to help reduce obesity and encourage healthier food choices may not be as effective as policymakers hope, as the authors point out.

"Obesity is in the news every day so it would be hard to say that people are unaware of the policy initiatives in place to reduce US obesity rates,"​ Ellison said. "Based on our study results, the more likely conclusion is that consumers' beliefs about who is to blame for obesity don't necessarily align with the beliefs of policymakers and public health advocates."

Ellison told FoodNavigator-USA that she was not particularly surprised by the results. “Given the individualistic culture of the United States, it makes sense that people would take responsibility for the choices they make related to food, exercise, and so on.

Political ideology and demographics also had an impact on perceptions of blame. For example, individuals with a more statist score on the economic political ideology scale were more likely to blame the government and agribusiness for obesity.

What is the alternative to personal responsibility?

Ellison acknowledged that both government and food and beverage companies will continue to work to improve the nutritional quality of food products—and that the latter will be “especially responsive providing healthier foods if consumers say they want them and are willing to pay for them.”

But she also challenged the notion that government and food providers are ultimately responsible for consumer health (and choice), noting that consumer empowerment could prove to be a powerful tool.

“I would also ask, what is the alternative to personal responsibility? Do we want consumers to feel like they have no control over their choices? We could build on the personal responsibility mindset people have to empower them to make smart choices,” ​she said.

She pointed to a recent blog entry​ on personal responsibility written as a followup to the study’s publication by Jayson Lusk, the study’s lead author. He wrote: “Do some food companies use a ‘personal responsibility’ mantra to try to avoid regulation? You bet. But, do some food activists do the reverse to advocate for regulation?​  

“Which is worse? I think there is a problem with the message of many in the food movement on this issue. It is contradictory and undermines people's volition.”

Lusk added that the implication that consumers need a third party to reign in "Big Food" implies a certain level of helplessness, which he says can be demotivating. “To advocate people take personal responsibility for their food choices—as I have—is a message of empowerment.”

Study details

For the survey, respondents were asked to place each of seven entities (food manufacturers, grocery stores, restaurants, government policies, farmers, individuals, and parents) into three categories: primarily, somewhat, and not to blame for the rise in obesity. Of the 800 responses obtained, 774 were usable.

Source: Appetite​                                                                                                                                              
DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2013.04.001
“Who is to blame for the rise in obesity?”
Authors: Jayson Lusk, Brenna Ellison

Related topics: Markets, Weight management

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