An insider’s peek into the ultra elite IOM meeting on “Solving Obesity”

On January 7th the Institute of Medicine (IOM) held a roundtable discussion workshop with the topic “The current state of obesity solutions in the United States”. Among the high-level speakers was James Hamblin, the senior editor of The Atlantic, who gave a speech about the role of media in obesity. He reports back an intriguing discussion regarding the pressing issue of obesity interventions, and how the general public’s perception of the root causes of obesity makes this particularly hard.

Three years ago the IOM agreed that the obesity crisis has been pushed by complex environmental circumstances, and called on public awareness to catalyze change. There is plenty of coverage about obesity in the media, but is it the right one? Ultimately, it is the general public’s view of what obesity is that will determine how we go about solving the obesity crisis. In sum, the media might be more inclined to depict obesity as a personal affliction, and a moral and biological failing, rather than a social disease. In fact, recent research from Yale University found that more than two thirds of news stories about overweight people portray them in a “negative and stigmatizing manner”.

Although most people agree that obesity is a serious national problem, only 27% of Republicans (and 87% of Democrats) believe the federal government should intervene to address this issue. Why? Because only 18% of Americans identify external factors such as food deserts, lack of opportunity to play outside and so on, as the primary cause of childhood obesity. Most people blame “overeating” and “watching too much television” and thus think that the best and most effective solutions can only be made by the person himself.

But what if these factors are only symptoms – not causes – of what the real problem is, Hamblin asks? Can you really separate personal choices from structural factors such as community planning, food packaging and marketing, and media stigmatization? Hamblin says that his role as opinion former in the news industry is one of public health as well. In sum, messages from the media are critical for the way people see obesity, and ultimately how they feel about government policies. Read the rest of his argument, as well as some of what other IOM speakers said in his article here.