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Obesity 'is not a choice' say psychology experts

By Jane Kirby
Obesity is "not a choice" and is not down to a lack of willpower, psychology experts have said.

A new report from the British Psychological Society calls for changes in how obesity is regarded, with less reference to "obese people" and more discussion of "people with obesity" or "people living with obesity".

And it said the Government should approach the problem of obesity in the same way it did smoking.

Experts behind the study argue that people become overweight or obese as a result of a complex combination of factors, including genetics, responses to stress from childhood, sedentary lifestyles and only poor food choices being on offer.

They said: "Obesity is not simply down to an individual's lack of willpower.

"The people who are most likely to be an unhealthy weight are those who have a high genetic risk of developing obesity and whose lives are also shaped by work, school and social environments that promote overeating and inactivity.

"People who live in deprived areas often experience high levels of stress, including major life challenges and trauma, often their neighbourhoods offer few opportunities and incentives for physical activity and options for accessing affordable healthy food are limited.

"Psychological experiences also play a big role - up to half of adults attending specialist obesity services have experienced childhood adversity."

The report said that dieters are also "particularly susceptible to emotional eating."

While the British Psychological Society does not support classing obesity as a disease, as some bodies including the World Health Organisation do, it said it remains "important to avoid language and explanations that locate the 'problem' of obesity within individuals."

The report went on: "Whilst obesity is caused by behaviour, those behaviours do not always involve 'choice' or 'personal responsibility'."

Chartered psychologist, Dr Angel Chater from the University of Bedfordshire, one of the authors of the report, said: "Adult obesity levels in England increased by 18% between 2005 and 2017, and there were similar increases in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

"This cannot be explained by a sudden loss of motivation across the four nations of the UK.

"The increase in obesity can in part be attributed to changes in the food supply and physical activity environment.

"To address obesity, we need an understanding of all its causes, biological, psychological and social, and use approaches to behaviour change for prevention and weight management that are informed by psychology."

The report said minister should ensure every initiative aimed at promoting a healthy weight is informed by psychological evidence.

Sarb Bajwa, chief executive of the British Psychological Society, said: "The Government acknowledged that obesity was a threat to the health of the nation back in 1991, but the problem has continued to get worse.

"We need a similar effort on obesity to the one we have seen on smoking.

"It has taken action at all levels for decades, from government policy to helping individual smokers, but we are now seeing significant reductions in the level of smoking and the health problems it causes.

"Psychologists have the science and clinical experience to help the health service do the same for obesity.

"We can help, not just by devising ways of helping individuals, but also by advising on public policy which will help create an environment in which people find it easier not to become obese in the first place."

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