Who to Blame for Obesity?

The journal Appetite just accepted a paper I wrote with Brenna Ellison at the University of Illinois.  The paper reports on a survey we conducted with about 800 Americans,  whom we asked who they though was primarily, somewhat, or not to blame for obesity.  

From the abstract:

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. Eighty percent said individuals were primarily to blame for the rise in obesity. Parents were the next-most blameworthy group, with 59% ascribing primary blame. Responses fell along three dimensions related to individual responsibility, agribusiness responsibility, and government-farm policy. A number of individual-specific factors were associated with 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.

Here are a few quotes from the literature-review section of the paper.

A criticism of the personal-responsibility perspective is that it can potentially lead to the stigmatization of the obese and result in depression and other psychological and physical problems . . .

yet, because research shows that the overweight have some of the most negative opinions about overweightedness . . .

the very people purportedly being stigmatized are also among the same group of people responsible for the alleged stigmatizing.


Although individual-blame beliefs can produce adverse consequences related to stigmatization, less widely acknowledged is that viewing obesity as a result of a toxic food environment or other non-individual factors can lead to perceptions of victimization, which can be de-motivating and lead its own set of psychological problems. For example, Wang and Coups (2010) showed that individuals who felt genetics (a non-controllable factor) were a significant cause of obesity were less likely to exercise and eat fruits and vegetables as compared to those who felt individual lifestyle behaviors had “a lot to do” with causing obesity.