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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Lott

Is the 'war on obesity' contributing to eating disorders?

Updated: Aug 4, 2023




A global increase in obesity, as defined by the problematic metric BMI, has prompted countless public health initiatives and policies aimed at combating this as a significant health concern and economic issue. However, those of us in the front-line are confronting a very worrying paradox on a near daily basis, corroborated by recent studies and anecdotal evidence : the efforts to 'fight' obesity may unintentionally be contributing to a substantial increase in eating disorder cases.


In this article I want to take a look into the complex interplay between the so-called 'war on obesity' ( an emotive slogan in itself) and the surge in eating disorders, highlighting the potential negative consequences of a singular focus on weight loss.


1. A Dual Approach: The Obesity-Eating Disorder Relationship: While obesity and eating disorders may seem like polar opposites, there is an intricate relationship between the two. Researchers have observed a two- way connection, with obesity increasing the risk of developing eating disorders and vice versa.


2. The Role of Stigmatization: Public health campaigns targeting obesity frequently employ stigmatizing messages that label individuals with excess weight as lazy, lacking self-control, or even morally flawed. This weight-based stigma is detrimental to our mental health and our body image, potentially triggering disordered eating patterns.



Public health campaigns targeting obesity often employ stigmatizing messages that label individuals with excess weight as lazy, lacking self-control, or even morally flawed


3. The Singular Focus on Weight Loss: The 'war on obesity' has predominantly centred around weight loss as the ultimate goal. However, this narrow focus completely overlooks the complexity of individual health and well-being. An emphasis on weight loss as the only way to measure health fosters a harmful preoccupation with food, body image, and obsessive dieting, which are characteristic of eating disorders.


An emphasis on weight loss as the only way to measure health fosters a harmful preoccupation with food, body image, and obsessive dieting, which are characteristic of eating disorders.



4. Disordered Eating vs. Healthy Habits: The relentless pursuit of this constantly promoted goal of weight loss can lead individuals to engage in extreme behaviours such as restrictive diets, excessive exercise, or purging. The first two of these actions are constantly framed as healthy habits in the current climate, but they can easily escalate into disordered eating or clinical eating disorders. The pressure to conform to a societal standard of beauty=thin exacerbates this risk.


5. The Influence of Diet Culture: One thing that can't be ignored is the powerful and relentless effect of diet culture. Diet culture permeates our society, promoting quick fixes, unrealistic body ideals, and a constant focus on food and weight. Governmental public health campaigns that endorse dieting without addressing the underlying psychological and emotional factors reinforce this constant bombardment from diet culture and contribute to the development of eating disorders.


Governmental public health campaigns that endorse dieting without addressing the underlying psychological and emotional factors reinforce this constant bombardment from diet culture and contribute to the development of eating disorders.


6. Neglected Mental Health: The 'war on obesity' overlooks the crucial role of mental health in overall well-being. By prioritizing weight loss over mental and emotional well-being, individuals grappling with body image issues and eating disorders are frequently missed altogether; this leaves their needs and struggles unaddressed and contributes to delayed treatment , with all the pitfalls this can carry with it.

7. A Call for Balanced Approaches: To mitigate the unintended consequences of the 'war on obesity,' a shift towards a more balanced approach is necessary. This includes promoting body positivity , stopping equating worth and value with thinness and activity level, encouraging a balanced approach to food ,and fostering a supportive environment that acknowledges the multifaceted nature of health.


The rise in eating disorder cases alongside the ongoing 'war on obesity' raises important questions about the unintended consequences of public health initiatives. While addressing obesity is important, it is imperative to consider the potential negative impact on mental health and eating disorder rates. By adopting a holistic and compassionate approach that values individual well-being over weight alone, we can strive for a healthier society that supports both physical and mental wellness.

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