Obesity Research Paper

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Obesity has increasingly been identified as a critical global public health concern. This focus on obesity as a health priority raises complex bioethical issues. These include how obesity is defined and categorized, the implications of the centrality of personal responsibility in medical and public health approaches, how competing ethical frames impact social justice concerns, and the growing “moral panic” concerning obesity. A critical examination of how obesity is defined as a medical problem suggests that ethical approaches could be more productive if obesity were addressed as a social problem with medical consequences, rather than emphasizing it as a medical problem with social consequences.

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There has been a dramatic rise in the prevalence of obesity globally in the last three decades, and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates around 11 % of the world’s total population is obese (WHO 2012). Obesity is seen as a major public health concern because it is widely recognized as a precipitating factor in the parallel emergence of chronic diseases as a primary cause of death in many countries. Obesity is often reported as a major drain on medical systems, and the growing obesity rates in developing countries are often cited as especially worrying in this regard. From a bioethics perspective, the focus on obesity as a health priority raises complex issues. This entry highlights inter-related and key bioethical dimensions of contemporary concerns around and approaches to obesity, including the means by which people are categorized as obese or not, the medicalization of obesity as a disease that needs to be treated, implications of the centrality of individual responsibility in medical and public health approaches, obesity as a social justice issue, and media and growing “moral panic.”


Obesity is most simply defined as an excess of adipose (fat) tissue, usually with negative health effects. However, this definition is problematic. Medically, as discussed below, the science of obesity is increasingly suggesting that many people can be both obese and healthy. However, “obese” and “obesity” are terms that have also entered everyday media and other public discourses in ways that are mostly negative and imply ill-health and disease. The growing assumption that obesity is defined as a negative characteristic is historically and culturally particular, in marked contrast to cross-cultural records that describe plump bodies as powerful, sexy, social, abundant, fertile, and certainly healthy (Brewis 2011a).

Ethical Dimensions

The Categorization of Obesity. A definition of obesity based upon the notion of excess body fat requires measurement against a standard of what constitutes “normal.” Given that human bodies are highly ecologically flexible and vary in averages across populations, the imposition of a single standard for classification as obese raises some complex bioethical issues. The most widely employed means to classify people as obese, and then assess variation in population levels of obesity, is through use of body mass index (BMI).

BMI does not directly measure body fat; rather, it is a proxy measure using the ratio of mass (weight) relative to height. Using statistical methods and prescriptive and risk models, four basic categories of weight (underweight, normal, overweight, obese) have been identified and are now widely applied, from the doctor’s office to large public health interventions. These standard categories are arbitrarily defined through cutoff points related to morbidity and mortality rates found in large-scale epidemiological studies, with obesity normally set at a BMI of 30 or higher.

While BMI as a measure of obesity is sometimes useful, particularly in clinical studies, because of both individual and population variation, this mapping of weight to health risk is not precise or even especially predictive. For example, there is growing evidence that many people clinically defined as obese prove to be metabolically healthy even as they are advised by doctors they need to lose weight, and that the level of obesity at which conditions like diabetes and heart disease become more prevalent differs across populations. Moreover, BMI does not discriminate between muscle mass, bone, connective tissue, and amount types of adipose tissue, obscuring accurate measurement of total body fat. As a result, people with highly-developed musculature are labeled obese by the measure, even when they have low levels of actual body fat. Further, some populations have greater bone density on average or shorter leg bone length resulting in falsely high BMI scores (Hruschka et al. 2013). For example, for decades there has been a public health concern focused on very high obesity risk in Pacific Island populations, but more recent studies have shown that the disease correlates of obesity emerge at higher levels of adiposity in comparison to other groups. Hence, the common standard for categorizing obesity probably misassigns a significant number of people and accordingly implies health risks where none may exist (and vice versa). Additionally, women have a higher percentage of body fat than men, and weight tends to increase in both genders as individuals age. Attempts to address the weaknesses in BMI classifications have resulted in alternative methods that more accurately measure the amount and distribution of body fat, but these use technologies or expertise that are difficult to implement in real-world settings.

Defining Obesity as a Disease. Defining obesity against a set standard of what is a normal or healthy level of body fat leads to an emphasis on prevention and cure, and underscores obesity as (1) a problem, with (2) an identifiable cause (diagnosis), and that (3) requires evaluation, intervention, management, and control. The central bioethical issue is this: regardless of how people are classified into an obese category, once so categorized it is generally assumed that labeling a person as unhealthy is warranted and medical or other intervention is necessary. Certainly, obesity has become increasingly identified as a major factor and index of ill-health over the last two decades. This culminated in the formal recognition of obesity as a disease by the American Medical Association in 2013, even in the absence of other risk factors or clinical symptoms. The growing medicalization of obesity as a condition explains why highly invasive and often risky medical treatments for obesity, such as bariatric surgery, are on the rise. The emphasis on excess weight as a health problem also negatively impacts how people view and relate to their own and others’ bodies and in ways that create emotional and social distress related to failing to meet social prescriptions for an ideal or acceptable body size.

Levels of Analyses and Ultimate Causation. Current scientific evidence on the causes of obesity can be analyzed at different levels, often working iteratively and in feedback with each other. At the genetic level, some individuals have a predisposition toward higher weights, weight gain, and difficulty in weight loss, related to genetic variants in appetite, metabolism, and activity. At the individual level, obesity is the result of excess calorie intake over calories expended through physical activity, but individual-level factors such as income, education level, ethnicity, age, and gender also predict differential risks of being obese, as does use of certain medications or comorbidities such as depression. Institutional factors such as health care access also matter.

At the community, neighborhood, or regional level, obesity risk accrues differently based solely on where people live. One factor in this pattern is the rapid urbanization of the world’s population: urbanization is associated with higher rates of obesity, and an increasing majority of humans live in cities. This correlation is due, in part, to the low cost of high density foods, changes in activity with the move to urban settings and structural and economic barriers to healthier lifestyles (Metzl and Hansen 2014). Further, within those cities, specific locales and their inhabitants’ lifestyles vary based upon social, spatial, and economic factors. The built environment of a particular locale is one example of how the physical expression of social, spatial, and economic factors relates to obesity prevalence: walkability, public transportation, access to fresh foods, safety, parks, light and shade, access to healthcare, and density all help shape obesity risk. For example, barriers in transportation and distance may make it difficult for residents to access healthy foods, while the perception by residents that the place they live in is unsafe or of poor quality may limit opportunities to be physically active. Social and economic factors also influence residential effects, including social exclusion, discrimination, and diminished economic infrastructure. Efforts to address residential effects often evoke stakeholder objections, as these efforts may inhibit personal choice, stigmatize neighborhood residents, or create changes that conflict with personal lifestyles and cultural values (ten Have et al. 2011).

Education and wealth, and most especially poverty, are also implicated in obesity risk. The relationship between income and obesity is complex and varies depending on the economic development of the resident country. Most nations, even the poorest, demonstrate some level of obesity, even in the presence of food shortages and undernutrition. The combination of under and over nutrition increases the likelihood of obesity and has significant implications in terms of health risks and negative health effects. As poorer nations become increasingly urbanized and industrialized, these problems are exacerbated, particularly as low income countries have fewer healthcare resources to meet the challenges posed by chronic conditions associated with obesity. This “dual burden” is also evident in middle-income countries: as economic changes at both the household and national level occur, families with a dual burden of having overweight and underweight individuals become increasingly prevalent.

Evidence suggests that income and obesity also rise together as inexpensive food becomes easily accessible. However, this trend reverses at the point where the apparent social costs of obesity outweigh the advantages. In middle to high-income countries, obesity tends to be inversely correlated with socioeconomic status, meaning that the highest obesity rates are found in those populations with the lowest incomes and with the lowest levels of educational achievement (Brewis 2011a). At a national level, BMI appears to rise in the early and accelerated phases of economic development due to a complex set of factors including urban migration, a shift from traditional occupations, and increased technology. At the individual level, poverty is contextual, demonstrating a complex residential pattern, with both rural and urban poverty linked to lower education and higher obesity.

While there have been some efforts to develop community-level interventions in line with increasing recognition of these upstream causes of obesity risk, medical and public health interventions continue to give the most attention to individual behavior change. The standard treatment model, often shared by clinicians and patients alike, is that the individual must lose excess weight by eating less and/or exercising more. This is despite decades of evidence that most such behavioral change strategies eventually fail to result in weight lost, and often serve to promote weight regain (Brewis 2011a).

Obesity and Social Justice Considerations. The role of proximate and ultimate factors discussed above means that obesity can be framed as a social justice issue, not solely a medical one. This suggests a very different course, emphasis, and pathway for public health interventions. Policies that seek to restrict behavior (passively or actively) can disproportionately affect the poor, the rural, and the malnourished. Of critical importance is who designs, implements, and evaluates these efforts. How do these interventions ethically impact personal physical health while promoting equality and maintaining individual autonomy? If population-level interventions are not necessarily individually beneficial and may in fact have psychosocial and cultural costs with their own negative health consequences, should public health entities intervene at all? These are some of the ethical issues that arise when the focus moves away from considering obesity fundamentally a medical problem to thinking about obesity at the aggregate level.

The challenge is to consider both the ultimate (structural) as well as the proximate factors (nutrition, activity, and medical conditions) that shape obesity risk when developing obesity policy and interventions. Identifying the causes of obesity, when coupled with how it is defined, becomes important in the ethical frame used to intervene. To date, there have been multiple framings in approaches to combat the rise of obesity. These ethical frames are not mutually exclusive and often coexist within a particular approach. Understanding the ethical platform from which programs spring will enable better understanding of the consequences (intentional or unintentional), successes, and failures. Identifying obesity as a health problem is more than defining disease, biomedical risk, and treatment; assigning responsibility – individual or otherwise – becomes part of the equation. The increasing prevalence of obesity on a global scale is accompanied by concerns that society is harmed in some way. This sense of harm in turn is linked to the notion of blame. How responsibility and blame are assigned varies with different ethical frames.

Framing Obesity Solutions

Emphasis on Individual Responsibility. The notion of individual responsibility has dominated the discourse surrounding the obesity crisis and efforts to contain the problem. Individual responsibility is rooted in notions of individual autonomy based within a moralistic theory of personal determination. Morality frames emphasize the threat to social values and economic stability by focusing on personal choice and the impact these choices have on society (Boero 2012). A morality frame advances notions of normal, ideal, virtue, right, and wrong. In this frame, obesity is related to personal failings – a lack of self-discipline, restraint, rationality, and moral failings attributed to poor life choices (gluttony, sloth, and a lack of adherence to personal improvement). Obesity, therefore, is self-induced and harm is self-inflicted. Because the individual is responsible for their health and body, blame is personal and can take the form of value imperatives about who is obese or overweight and who is responsible. Interventions and public health campaigns using this frame focus on problem awareness, promote better individual health behaviors, and encourage personal responsibility. Interventions range from educational efforts to weight loss programs, “fat taxes” (on calorie or fat dense foods), and increased insurance rates for individuals with high BMIs. This type of framing, when used in conjunction with a medical definition of obesity, places the focus of the intervention on achieving a physical ideal body weight and ignores the psychosocial dimensions of health, even as it places responsibility upon the individual (as psychologically weak or morally lax). Stigmatization, discrimination, and negative self-image are the result, which have their own negative health consequences (Sagay 2013; Puhl and Heuer 2010).

Biomedical and Public Health Frames. The biomedical frame uses the language of risk to intervene and regulate the body in order to promote health or, more usually, decrease illness or disease. Obesity in this frame is seen as pathologic – a biological condition to be monitored, treated, and cured. The body is understood to be the recipient of treatment, a somewhat passive vessel that needs management by healthcare professionals (Sagay 2013). De-emphasizing personal responsibility can be helpful in decreasing stigma, but medicalization also promotes stigmatization by labeling obese bodies as sick. Framing obesity in terms of mortality and morbidity imparts urgency and authority to the issue. The locus for intervention is on proximate factors and responsibility remains with the individual-aspatient, though the medical system is a crucial partner in terms of defining the problem and determining and managing treatment. Generally individual and small-scale interventions focused on dietary choice, activity, and medical/surgical interventions are utilized in this context. However, the biomedical frame informs larger policy issues resulting in industry and governmental regulations generally rooted in economic analyses, such as differential insurance rates for individuals based upon weight, corporate programs to incentivize weight reduction or dietary choice, bans or taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, and regulation of nutritional information on food products.

A public health frame assigns responsibility to the government (local, state, and federal). Public health entities are most often located within governments and are charged with setting standards, regulating and protecting public safety and promoting health, and minimizing or preventing public harm while at the same time ensuring individual liberty, privacy, and public access to needed resources. This equation differs internationally as notions of individual and public health are culturally constituted. In general, obesity is seen as a threat to public health and the approach taken is to reduce the threat, generally combining individual and systemic approaches to address the issue. Ethical approaches in this frame deal with the differential distribution of obesity across groups and subpopulations as prevalence and risk manifest variably within cultural groups, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. Financial triggers (incentives & disincentives), built environment changes that alter lifestyle options (slowing elevators, car-free zoning, food banning), and informational campaigns are often used or suggested within a public health intervention. Issues of justice and fairness can be particularly problematic in this framing as the dual focus of public health creates a tension between liberty and protection. Obesity at the individual level includes social and economic disparities as well as discrimination and psychological stress from weight bias. Addressing these issues within the systemic frames of government, business, and infrastructure (including larger social forces) can contribute to stigmatization, discrimination, and differential opportunities and access.

Thus, in practice, there is a smorgasbord of antiobesity efforts, structured within multiple framings – moralistic, biomedical, and public health – that tend to be disconnected from each other. Even assuming a universal definition of obesity and its determinants exists, the ethics of policy interventions still needs to be addressed. At the heart of the ethics, debate is concerned over individual choice, autonomy, and the exacerbation of stigma and discrimination. Rephrasing the two previous ethical questions might then ask: What are the individual’s essential rights and responsibilities concerning weight? Secondly, what is the responsibility of the government in providing healthy, safe environments for its citizens?

This tension between rights and responsibilities (individual, societal, and governmental) plays out differently globally. The body (and body size) is understood as a “domain of liberty and autonomy” (Tirosh 2014, p. 1801), but the expression of these values is differentially understood across societies. When seen as a lifestyle issue, obesity remains focused at the individual and local levels, to be dealt with through small-scale interventions in select populations to encourage individuals to control their weight and make healthier choices (moralistic frame). These types of interventions tend to ignore the complexity of factors (and responsibilities) underlying obesity and keep responsibility (and blame) with the individual. Growing public discourse has revolved around policy changes to combat the “rising epidemic” of obesity. Public health officials have supported this groundswell of opinion through campaigns to promote the adoption of a healthy lifestyle, emphasizing a diet high in fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, and lean proteins and sufficient exercise – efforts that highlight personal choice and responsibility. Much of the work on prevention and intervention at this level has had mixed results. Even among public health practitioners who seek to address structural components underlying obesity, the political weight of the morality frame leads them to use “code language” such as “make the healthy choice, the easy choice.” Essentially structural changes are presented as changes enabling personal choice.

At a governmental level, rising healthcare costs in conjunction with rising obesity rates globally and concerns over the efficacy of individual-level interventions are frequently cited as an impetus for governmental strategies and policies to guide widespread interventions, primarily through legislation. Governmental interventions are influenced by the culture, political system, economics, and traditions of the nations involved, resulting in a spectrum of policies and programs globally. Efforts range from health education to restrictive taxes on unhealthy foods and beverages, with a goal of shaping behavior by restricting or coercing individual choice. In the European Union (EU), a concerted effort is being made to encourage voluntary action on the part of industry partners to alter nutrition and activity environments. Voluntary efforts to support decision-making through evidence-based information, self-regulation of product claims (labeling, advertisements) through the proposed establishment of an industry code of conduct, food redistribution (surplus fruits/vegetables) focused on children 4–12 years old, reformulation of foods to decrease sugar, fat, and salt, and sustainable urban transportation facilities to promote physical activity/ public infrastructure (Commission of the European Communities 2007) are examples of this type of intervention. In the USA, taxation of SSBs and calorie-dense foods has been implemented (or attempted), most notably in New York City and the Navajo Nation. China, Britain, and Mexico have all passed or attempted to enact legislation that aims to regulate behavior with an eye to reducing the economic burden of healthcare. Often, particular populations are targeted for interventions, as evidence indicates that obesity is more prevalent in these groups. Unfortunately, these efforts can take the form of value imperatives about who is obese or overweight and who is responsible, encouraging the spread of stigmatization and victimization (Puhl and Heuer 2010).

Some initiatives have sought to create structural or environmental changes to address the inequities, disparities, and deficits implicated in obesity (public health framing with social justice focus). Policies attempting to reduce the unequal distribution of resources, barriers to healthy foods and activities, and social and economic inequities can be found in new regulations requiring enhanced visibility and simplified nutritional labeling; limitations on commercial advertising of high density, low-nutrient foods to children; venue-specific banning of “unhealthy items” such as high-fat items in restaurants or SSBs in school vending machines; and limiting the proximity of fast-food restaurants to schools (Kass et al. 2014; ten Have et al. 2011). These types of initiatives still impact personal choice and liberty and have resulted in public debates regarding the role of government in regulating health. Impacting broader economic and social structures is more challenging from the local level, though increasingly tools like health impact assessments and health in all policies are being used to provide more equity in land use decisions, and have even been used to evaluate local minimum wage, affordable housing, and supplemental nutrition policies. Criticisms of obesity policies have ranged from concerns over the inhibition of individual autonomy, the expansion of the paternalistic “nanny” state (and subsequent economic burden), and the inequitable treatment and stigmatization of low-income populations.

Ethical discussions concerning interventions that limit choice or coerce behavior tend to be centered on arguments about legitimacy and utility. Legitimacy focuses on the value to society in instituting a particular policy or practice. Generally, the discussion revolves around the role of paternalism (soft or hard) in promoting the general welfare of the individual. Paternalism is best viewed as a sliding scale that ranges from promoting informed choice (information campaigns) through implementation of incentives (free or reduced costs, tax benefits, etc.) and ultimately various forms of coercion (bans, taxation). Utility looks at the cost-benefit ratio: is a policy or intervention likely to succeed and does it offer enough benefit to offset the reduction in choice, liberty, or privacy. Because there is little cohesion in how data is collected internationally, making evidence based comparisons of the effectiveness of different types of interventions is difficult. In general, arguments made for coercive policies are rooted in the premise that obesity is associated with higher morbidity and attendant higher costs of treatment. As previously noted, this is by no means a validated conclusion and therefore the utility of such efforts is suspect.

An example of this trade-off is the call for school districts to restrict soft drinks on school campuses. This type of intervention may have the unintended consequence of reducing the school’s revenue stream, resulting in less money available for student education or extra-curricular activities. Obesity prevalence is associated with poverty and disadvantage, disproportionately impacting precisely those communities whose schools need funding the most. Reduced funding may lead to a reduction in programming and healthy food options, elimination of physical education or play equipment, poor food quality to reduce costs, increased sedentism, and reduced educational opportunities (Crooks 2003). The result may be an environmental trade-off of biological costs for social benefits – poorer nutritional quality in order to provide education for all students and thus hopefully propel the students out of poverty.

Another example is the call to use social pressure tactics, similar to antismoking campaigns, to leverage public opinion toward acceptance of stringent governmental regulations. The trade-off here is to focus on increased legitimacy at the expense of utility. This type of intervention operates at the individual, acute, and proximate level and does not address any of the underlying structural conditions. Couched as “stigmatization lite” the argument is that overweight and obese individuals do not recognize their “problem” and need to be awakened to reality. Unfortunately increasing stigmatization of the individual has not been demonstrated to positively impact behavior change; rather, it produces the opposite impact. Discrimination is implicated in stress induced physiological responses associated with obesity that not only negatively impact health but also discourage potential participation in health-related activities. Beyond this, how is the level of stigma “titrated?” Increasing antiobesity thinking may contribute to the moral panic over the rise in obesity rates (Campos et al. 2006).

Stigmatization And Moral Panic

Obesity and Weight-related Stigma. Any discussion on bioethics needs to address the issue of stigmatization (and resulting victimization and discrimination) of obese individuals. Placing the responsibility for one’s weight on the individual has led to sanctioned discrimination in the form of diminished access to goods, services, and employment opportunities and higher healthcare costs for obese individuals. Obesity has even been used as evidence in child abuse cases and other legal interventions. Despite multiple framings of obesity as a medical and public health problem, the persistent focus on individual responsibility and autonomy continues to direct the understanding of obesity through the lens of morality – a platform for value imperatives and subsequent stigmatization.

Obesity stigma must be addressed within the social and structural conditions that produce it. That is, there must be recognition that even a focus on ultimate factors (zoning laws, bans, taxation, urban renewal) can have unintended consequences resulting in increased discrimination. In the past, public health concerns were often the result of an external agent (bacterial or viral agent, poor sanitation, cigarettes, etc.), allowing the focus of interventions to remain external to the body/self. However, weight (and excess weight) is rooted in the body itself – it is a domain of the self. Eating and movement are necessary components of life and are seen as highly personal, as one chooses what, when, and how to eat, move, and function bodily within personal environments. Because these activities are necessary (one cannot stop eating, for example), efforts have focused on changing personal decisions related to eating and activity. Attempts to alter these bodily functions with an external agent (medication, surgery) have had mixed results, but as long as eating and activity are categorized as personal choices, stigmatization will remain a factor.

Media and Corporate Roles. The “moral panic” that has resulted from the framing of obesity as an epidemic has produced a media onslaught. This begs the question of whether the media is reflecting this panic or creating it. Popular media promotes a thin ideal body size (particularly for women), while continuing to also promote the sale of obesogenic products. Fast food and junk food advertisements, product placement in movies, casting of thin ideal body types, and disparaging characterizations of obese characters are prevalent throughout multiple media formats. Visual representations of obese bodies that employ “de-evolution tropes” (which portray the human species as degenerating from more fit ancestors) are common. Media use (screen time) is certainly associated with increased snacking and requests for caloriedense foods and decreased activity and altered sleep patterns (American Academy of Pediatrics 2011).

The increasing documentation of these negative social and physical impacts of media treatment of obesity has led to a mishmash of corporate efforts and legislative calls to action. For example, the Disney Corporation has announced that it will no longer advertise “junk foods” on its television channel. However, Disney continues to promote thin body ideals in its movie and cartoon heroines. McDonald’s has been criticized for targeting children with “toy” gifts in their high fat and sugar Happy Meals. Several European Union countries have instituted restrictions on food advertising aimed at very young children. The impacts of the media on obesity risk and stigma bring to the fore the ongoing ethical conundrum concerning the extent to which governments should have control over media that promote unhealthy behaviors or stigmatization. Issues of free speech, government regulation, and equal access to opportunity and goods have all been cited as deterrents to government regulation of advertising and media. Combining this with a moralistic frame that castigates large bodies as personal failures and the bioethical landscape is messy indeed.


Obesity arises through individual behaviors shaped within varied epigenetic, cognitive, sociocultural, physical, material, political, and other institutional structures and environments. Bioethically, based on the discussion above, this entry suggests that obesity is perhaps more productively addressed as a social problem with medical consequences rather than a medical problem with social consequences. Competing frames of obesity, whether medically or otherwise problematized or not (moralistic, medical/ healthcare, public health, governmental), are rooted in concerns about the ethical behavior of members within the group, not about the larger social, economic, and political domains. Social justice models for obesity intervention rightly focus on the role of the built environment, but rarely tackle the ultimate determinants like poverty, education, and discrimination. Many complex bioethical questions remain: Is it possible to account for acute and chronic dimensions as well as proximate and ultimate factors and mitigate some of the unintended, negative consequences of interventions? How can health policies and interventions ethical approaches be constructed to take into account the very real social dimensions of weight and the body? If health is a public good, what are the ethical implications of not intervening?

Ultimately, being obese is both a private and public matter. While an individual’s weight is the result of multiple individual and biosocial components, the individual’s body is subject to public scrutiny and – increasingly – public regulation. The consequences of public efforts, both intended and unintended, need to be critically examined within the context of how obesity is defined as a problem, the frame used to address the problem as defined, and then how, with whom, and at what level various prevention and intervention efforts are implemented.

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