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

"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 News

Obesity a threat to global food security: DuPont

Obesity a threat to global food security: DuPont

NHANES data on weight misperception

A third of youth misjudge their weight status; focus on weight not helpful, expert says

CDC: Obesity rates exceed 30% in nearly half of US states

Obesity rates exceed 30% in nearly half of US states: CDC

Health experts debate the role of exercise, food, marketing in obesity

Health experts debate the role of exercise, food and marketing in the obesity epidemic

People tend to compensate for changes in both activity and food intake

Calories in vs. calories out? Weight management is not that simple, say researchers

The good news is, we have many options. The important question is which approaches work best under what circumstances. It would be tragic if five years from now, we were still lacking evidence to choose the best mix of policies,” said Nicholas Freudenberg, faculty director at the NYC Food Policy Center at Hunter College.

Delving into Bloomberg’s proposed cap on super-size soda

Related Products

See more related products

Comments (4)

jl - 03 Feb 2014 | 06:50

Franken foods

If the big food companies want to blame consumers for being so gullible that they are eating real food, then stop fighting full disclosure regulation, and calling things fruit that have no fruit in them, and all the various other stretches of truth in advertising and package labeling. Consumers need to get educated on what they are really eating, but if you're living hand to mouth, they are not really in a position to think ahead long term. That's the reality, unfortunately.

03-Feb-2014 at 18:50 GMT

Michael Prager - 03 Feb 2014 | 02:20

Blinders the size of Montana!

Legions of food technologists labor to concoct semi-foods that prey upon genetic tendencies, and their employers spend billions every year not just to persuade individuals but to alter the culture. And the only responsibility for the outcome lies with consumers. If I am responsible for my actions, what about industry's? Breathtaking.

03-Feb-2014 at 14:20 GMT

Submit a comment

Your comment has been saved

Post a comment

Please note that any information that you supply is protected by our Privacy and Cookie Policy. Access to all documents and request for further information are available to all users at no costs, In order to provide you with this free service, William Reed Business Media SAS does share your information with companies that have content on this site. When you access a document or request further information from this site, your information maybe shared with the owners of that document or information.