Obesity: Questioning the Motives of Our Information Sources

Where does our knowledge on health and wellbeing come from?

Do we rely on information printed in magazines, listen to recommendations made by medical experts, or rely on the advice of friends and family members? More specifically, where do we source our information on obesity?

According to the NHS, obesity affects approximately 1 in every 4 adults in the United Kingdom. i This suggests that approximately one quarter of the adult population in the UK are overweight and are consequently at risk of developing some of the conditions associated with obesity such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and depression.

Obesity can be triggered by several factors: by the over consumption of high-calorie or processed foods, environmental factors, genetics, or by other underlying health conditions. While recognising the influences of obesity might be the first step towards tackling the problem, there are other economic factors to be considered. The UK Government spends more money on treating obesity and diabetes each year than it spends on the police, fire service and judicial system combined. In fact, the NHS spent approximately £6.1 billion on obesity related conditions between 2014 and 2015. ii

As obesity poses many risks to one’s personal health as well as to the economy, our information sources on obesity become even more significant. Therefore, are our information sources seeking to combat the growth of obesity within our communities or are they fuelling the problem?

A recent study examining the changing frames of obesity in the UK press between 2008 and 2017 discovered that our understanding of obesity is somewhat influenced by the ways in which obesity is framed by the media. iii According to Teun A. Van Dijk, a leading scholar in the field of textual linguistics, “in the United Kingdom, the free press plays a major role in influencing the social, cultural and political direction that the country takes by both reflecting and influencing the opinions of readers”. iv

The authors of this UK press study discovered that the discrimination of obese individuals within the UK is reinforced by the language used by the press and suggests that greater balance in press coverage, combining individual as well as societal perspectives could challenge the stigmatisation and shame that surrounds obesity.

This is a major development within health communications as the continued stigmatisation of obese individuals inadvertently contributes to the growth of obesity within society. As previously mentioned, depression is associated with obesity, yet many may not realise how obesity, which is intrinsically linked to depression, is often fuelled by stigmatisation. Another investigation on the topics of obesity and depression published in ‘Obesity, a Practical Guide’, recently revealed that 80% of studies conducted show evidence that obesity is related to depression, while 20 % of studies determine that depression is related to obesity. v

Essentially, if we are supporting sources or digesting information that stigmatises obese individuals, are we inadvertently contributing to the problem on a grander scale? If the continued stigmatisation of obese individuals in the press or indeed, in our communities, leads to distress, isolation and potentially triggers anxiety or depression, are we subsequently pushing individuals who are struggling with obesity further into the shadows?

Ultimately, it is important that we select sources that empower us and voice the perspectives of all groups within society, regardless of one’s weight and size. Selecting balanced, educational, and empathetic sources will enable us to support each other and guide us towards solutions rather than contributing to exclusion. This UK press study demonstrates the power that our words can have over others and most importantly, the impression they can leave on others.

While Baker et al concluded that it is important that the news media challenge stigmatisation rather than encourage it, it is also important that we too take a moment to assess the words that we use to frame obesity. We need to be mindful of how our words and actions might be affecting individuals in our communities; individuals who are struggling with feelings of isolation or shame because of such stigmatisation. In supporting each other and creating a more inclusive, empowering, and healthier society, we can reflect on the importance of being kind to each other and above all, support each other’s wellbeing. 

 

Reference:

i NHS (2019) ‘Overview Obesity’, NHS. Link

ii Public Health England (2017) ‘Health matters: obesity and the food environment’, Gov UK. Link

iii Baker, P., Brookes, G., Dimitrinka, A. and Flint, S.W. (2020) ‘Changing frames of obesity in the UK press 2008–2017’, Social Science & Medicine 264: 113403. Link

iv Van Dijk, T. A. (1991) Racism and the Press, Routledge: London.

v Ahmed, S.I., Imam, S.K. (2016) Obesity a Practical Guide, Springer: New York. P. 235.

Photo Credit, Stock Free Image: Raic, V. (2014) Health/Medical, Pixabay.com 

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