Obesity And Lay Theories

23 Mar 2015

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Obesity is on the rise and has increasingly become an issue of concern. In fact, obesity has been identified as an epidemic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, there is no real consensus at a consumer level as to what causes obesity. Recent concerns with the increasing occurrence of overweight and obesity among children and adults indicate the requirement to gain a better understanding of the mind. As individuals, consumers establish their own opinion on what causes obesity, this is referred to as the lay theories of obesity. The two main theories are the lack of exercise or poor diet. The actions of the individual in terms of feigning off obesity by making dietary and lifestyle decisions is heavily dependent on which lay theory the individual holds to be true. For instance, if a person was to believe that lack of exercising has more of an influence on whether you are obese or not, they are susceptible to eating more that a person who thought poor diet has more of an influence. This report focuses mainly on what has already been done in the academia work when it comes to obesity and perception of obesity.

However, to further study this area, we must consider existing studies conduct on related subjects. Through literature review, it is possible to develop a better understanding of the academia surrounding obesity and perception of cause. We need to know what exists in order to present new findings that add to the present academia on the subject.

The link between obesity and economics has been studied (Stutzer, 2007). The reduction in price of food contributes to increased obesity since the availability of food has increased. Low cost along with increased convenience means that individuals are able to gain satisfaction immediately but on the flip side, the long-term pursuit of healthy diet is hindered. When consumers make decisions, it is assumes that they are basing these on rational utility maximization. This also assumes that individuals actually know what brings utility and by how much, and also that they are able to actually maximize their utility. All these assumptions made in economics exclude one rather major systematic mistake in consumer choice. Self control. Increase availability of food increases the stress placed on a person's will power. By studying the economics of happiness, i.e. calculating the utility, it is possible to see whether consumption choices result in reduction of well-being for people. The findings said that obesity decreases well-being of individuals who have limited self-control and will power, and that there is no reduction in wellbeing for people in control of their diet.

Another study was conducted to assess the attitude of physicians' toward the obese patients and also attitude towards the causes and treatment of obesity (Foster, Wandden, Makris, Davidson, Sanderson, Allison and Kessler, 2003). Surveys were conducted with responses received by six hundred twenty physicians. The findings ranked physical inactivity as the number one perceived cause of obesity amongst physicians' caring for obese patients. The next two highest causes were overeating and high-fat diet. Thus obesity is viewed largely as a behavioral problem. In addition, physicians' contribute to the general society's negative stereotypes about individuals who are obese, with personal attributes described as ugly, awkward, unattractive and noncompliant. Even with physicians being rather critical of obese people, a general picture is formed that obesity is regarded as a behavioral problem and a shameful one at that. With regards to treatment of obesity, outcomes are viewed to be less effective than those for other chronic illnesses.

A research paper examines peoples attitude towards obesity, however, involving different parties to the study mentioned previously. It is about public's perception on childhood obesity (Evans, Finkelstein, Kamerow and Renaud, 2005). Obesity is on a rapid increase, with obesity amongst children and adolescents at 15%, which is more than triple that in 1980s. A survey was conducted, questioning individuals on severity, causes, and public support for intervention strategies to combat obesity in young people. In terms of severity, obesity was considered to be at par with tobacco and violence issues. There is also a large support by the public for intervention strategies aimed at cutting the number of obese children and young adults. This includes efforts by the media, school and community to promote healthy eating and lifestyle and limiting the promotion of unhealthy food. The study also shows that there are some methods of intervention that the public does not care for, such as regulatory and tax based intervention. Additionally, it was seen that highly educated individuals along with women had a significantly larger support for intervention; whereas, parents with children at home tend to generate less support for some of the intervention methods.

A similar study was conducted, but the results were more focused on the causes of obesity among primary school students rather than perception of prevention methods as studied in report "Public perception on childhood obesity (Evans, Finkelstein, Kamerow and Renaud, 2005)". The study looked into the lay perceptions by conducting a cross-sectional survey of random selected sample of adults (Hardus, Vuuren, Crawford and Worsley, 2003). The results showed that overconsumption of food, parental responsibility, modern technology and the mass media were ranked at the top causes of obesity. The other factors that were attributed to rising obesity in children are children's lack of knowledge and motivation, physical activity environment, lack of healthy food, lack of physical activity and genes. Prevention strategies regarded more important by the public are government action and children's health promotion. The results can be examined once again by breaking down the adults into smaller demographic groups. The parents believed that mass media, modern technology and government activities were the major causes, and government policy is a very important way to prevent obesity in children. Women's responses were very similar to those of the parents. However, nonparents and males differ in their response. As shown by the results, no one lay theory on the causes of obesity prevails. The public holds a rather diverse and sophisticated view on the causes of obesity.

A rather interesting study examined the negative stereotyping of obesity in children (Tiggemann and Anesbury, 2000). Obese individuals face negative attitude and experience discrimination, which may even take place in a work environment. When comparing fat people to think people, fat people are thought to be less attractive, lack self-discipline and confidence, less intelligent and less successful when it comes to jobs and relationships. Some positives may pass by an obese person, such as being joyful, however the negative opinions outweigh the positives by far. Studies conducted show that this perception is not limited to the adult mind, this behavior established within the minds of children as well. The study sees if other physical attributes, namely height, are subjected to the negativity by children. Results show that with height, stereotyping does not occur. The study goes on to look into the reason behind why the negative stereotyping occurs with obesity. It comes down to controllability beliefs. The children surveyed believed that obesity is largely under one's control. Furthermore, a positive correlation between controllability belief and negative stereotyping of fat people was found. The more controllable obesity is perceived to be, the more negative the attitude towards obese people. The attitudes exist regardless of the rater's age, gender and his/hers own weight. Even obese children harbor a negative attitude towards other obese children. The reason why there was no correlation between height and negative stereotyping was because of the lay theory: the controllability beliefs. Since the children thought that an individual's height is out of his/her control, there was no negative attitude. In society itself, obesity is thought to be volitionally controlled. Over eating and lack of exercising are the reasons for obesity, factors such as genetics and metabolic rate are disregarded. So, every child has a perception of how controllable someone's weight is. Those how place less controllability on obesity have a less negative view of fat people and vice versa. By further studying how to manipulate the degree of controllability place on obesity, it is possible to reduce the negative stereotypes faced by fat people.

Therefore, individuals carry beliefs of causes of obesity. These tend to be one of the two lay theories: eating too much or exercising too little. Either way, in this research paper, the difference between the two was not what was being investigated. It was whether individuals, in this case children, actually held either of the suggested lay theories or did the children attribute obesity to other factors such as genetics. As concluded by the study by Tiggemann and Anesbury, adults and children alike hold one of the lay theories.

An experiment was conducted by Harris and Hallbauer to assess the effectiveness of self-directed weight control by monitoring eating and exercise (Harris and Hallbauer, 1973). Three different programs were created. One consisted of a written contract and other self-control behavior modification techniques for changing the individuals eating behavior. Another group had a written contract and other self-control techniques but this time focusing on both eating and exercising habits. The final group consisted of an attention-placebo control condition. The findings concluded that all three of the groups were able to shed weight for the period of 12 weeks during the program. There was no significant variation in weight loss between the different groups. A follow-up was conducted seven months after the initial program. It was concluded that the control group, attention-placebo, lost the least amount of weight. Out of the other two behavior modification groups, the group focusing on both eating and exercising habits lost more weight than the group that focused singularly on modifying eating behavior.

The research conducted to see if there are relationships between negative stereotypes of obesity, thin ideal beliefs, what the causes of obesity are, one's ability to control body weight and self-esteem (Klaczynski, Goold and Mudry, 2004). As expected and seen in other studies mentioned previously, there is negative attitude towards obesity and also there is a thin idealization mindset in society. Also, there is found to be a negative correlation between an individual's weight and self-esteem, and how much control over one's weight an individual thinks people have. When examining the relationship between negative perception of obesity and self-esteem, it was discovered that there is a negative correlation. The reason for this relationship was primary because of what people thought caused obesity. People considered personality shortcomings as the reason for obesity. Therefore, obese people are subjected to negative attitudes, i.e. discrimination, prejudice and poor peer relationships. Thus, obese individuals suffer from self-esteem issues.

The relationship between negative perception of obesity and the cause of obesity is further examined in another study titled "The Stigma of Obesity: The consequences of Naïve Assumptions Concerning the Causes of Physical Deviance" (DeJong, 1980). The premise of the study was that whether an obese person is derogated depends on how much the individual can be blamed or held responsible for their current appearance. With this in mind, two experiments were designed with the study group being adolescent girls. The idea was to see if it was possible to manipulate the opinion of the girls regarding obese peer by mentioning the cause of obesity. The results showed that the obese individual was given less positive evaluation and was less liked that compared to her normal-weight counterparts. However, if the individual was able to provide an 'excuse', such as a glandular disorder, which causes her to be obese or if recent weight loss was reported, the negative attitudes towards the obese individuals were not as evident.

A less related to other studies mentioned in the report, but still rather interesting, is a study conducted to see if there is a correlation between dieting and developing eating disorders in obese women (Wadden, Foster, Sarwer, Anderson, Gladis, Sanderson, Letchak, Berkowitz and Phelan, 2004). The reason for this study was because of fears by individuals that by dieting may elicit binge eating or other eating or behavioral disorders. 20-week experiments were conducted to see if caloric restrictions resulted in adverse effects. After the 20weeks, there was no difference between the different groups of people being examined. At 40 and 65 weeks, yet again there was no difference between the different groups. More importantly, at no time during the experiment or after during follow ups, were any of the patients classified as having binge-eating disorder. Therefore, primary care givers should not fear of adverse behavioral problems when assigning patients to caloric restrictive diets.

With the increase in occurrence of obesity, it has become important to better understand the psychology behind obesity. Increased media coverage on obesity has resulted in a more aware public. People now know the detrimental health threats regarding obesity. Yet obesity is still on the rise. By better understanding which lay theory is most common in society, it might provide a stepping stone for further studies into how the obesity epidemic can be controlled and suppressed.

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