Does Labeling Obesity Help or Hurt Us?

A Body Mass Index (BMI) of greater than 30 classifies you as clinically obese. Greater than 40 and you’re morbidly obese. But is keeping the spotlight on waistlines, whether at the doctor or on the evening news, actually helpful? Does labeling obese people and focusing on fatness keep us healthier?

Obesity Rates Stabilizing

It’s widely accepted that rates of obesity in America have finally leveled off in the past decade (except for Arkansas), with some sub-populations even showing a decline in numbers (thank you, Michelle Obama!). But the reasons why — whether due to changing consumer behaviors or tough economic conditions — have always been hotly debated.

A new, extensive study from The University of North Carolina, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, has crunched the numbers and finally settled the argument.

It appears lifestyle changes necessary for obesity rates to plateau were happening well before any economic crises. These findings go against the long-held beliefs of many scholars who attribute stabilized obesity rates to the Great Recession and the year of large increases in food prices preceding it.

Shu Wen Ng, assistant professor of nutrition at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health and the study’s first author, said, “We found U.S. consumers changed their eating and food purchasing habits significantly beginning in 2003, when the economy was robust, and continued these habits to the present. These changes in food habits persist independent of economic conditions linked with the Great Recession or food prices.”

Researchers utilised national dietary intake data from the NHANES study, which covered households comprising 13,422 children and 10,791 adults from 2003-2011. Daily food purchases data from the Nielsen Homescan Panel, which contains food purchase data from 57,298 households with children and 108,932 households without children, were also analysed.

Is Childhood Obesity Declining?

The data also show that calories declined more among children than adults.

“Calorie consumption was declining at a rate of about 34 calories less per year among children aged 2-18 between 2003 and 2010 (vs. only 14 kcal/day among adults decline per year). The declines in food purchases after adjusting for all the economic changes was also at a rate of 34 kcal/capita per year among households with children between 2000 and 2011,” said Ng.

It’s worth noting that total caloric decline for children did not happen uniformly.

Barry Popkin, Distinguished Professor of nutrition at UNC Gillings said, “There were no significant declines in caloric intake observed among adolescents (12-18y), non-Hispanic black children and those whose parents did not complete high school. This suggests that certain subpopulations are still unable or unwilling to make these dietary changes.”

Public Health Messages Actually Work

But if the economic crunch is not responsible for this decline in calories purchased per capita and the subsequent healthier food choices, then what is?

Researchers firmly believe these improved eating habits are a direct result of sustained and persistent public health messages aimed at raising awareness about healthy food choices, providing better information on lifestyle changes, and discouraging poor food choices. All public health advocates should give themselves a pat on the back.

And whilst the specific contributors are not quantifiable from this research alone, Professor Popkin suggests that consistent consumer pressure, food industry changes such as low-calorie choices, and the relentless barrage of media attention have all played their part in leveling obesity. To top it all off, the American Medical Association (AMA) have even officially recognized obesity as a disease.

Targeting Obesity

Obese people can be clinically healthy too, and thin people just one more buffalo wing from a heart attack. So is our stern emphasis on waistlines really warranted?

As a health professional, I personally feel that the obsession with weight and obesity (e.g., placing such huge emphasis on the numbers on the scale and the media secretly filming obese people from the neck down, displaying them headless, something I wanted to demonstrate with the feature image above) focuses solely on the superficial aspects rather than underlying health issues. This has far more negative consequences than positive — body image and associated psychological issues are first to mind.

Even if dogged media attention on obesity could be playing a role in lowering obesity rates, perhaps we’re better off promoting health.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Oleg Kobetz
Oleg Kobets5 years ago


Karin Hauk
Karin Hauk5 years ago

poor poor fat people!! eat and eat and get more fat every day. eating up everything they can get and than wondering and running to the doctor. he should fix it then. their stomachs are a cimetary for dead animals!! only time they move, is from the sofa to the kitchen and back. from healthy food like lots of grocery and fruits nobody get fat.

Tracy G.
Tracy G5 years ago


Lynn C.
Past Member 5 years ago


Karen H.
Karen H5 years ago

No, labeling people as obese doesn’t help. It’s bullying. Dr. Oz tried an experiment where he went in public in a “fat suit” to look like he weighed an unhealthy 400 pounds. During the experience, he said, “I just feel really low now. My self-esteem dropped. I feel like I'm a different person.” He said he felt unworthy and criticized.
If your self-esteem is down and you feel unworthy, how much will labeling help? Not at all. It will only add to the depression.
We need people (including our doctors) to tell us HOW to eat healthy, especially on a tight budget. That works better than, “You need to lose a few pounds…”

Jeannine A. Johnson
Jeannine Johnson5 years ago


Susan T.
Susan T5 years ago

BTW, I typed my comment before I read Robin P.'s post

Susan T.
Susan T5 years ago

seriously? Is it OK to label someone as Obese? Is it OK to call you, the author a Dum ASS?
I really do think people who are overweight know that they are but shaming them into a label is going to help ??? are you totally stupid? and mean and wow then fat kids are gonna turn into anorexics or bulemics because being FAT is so wrong. opps gotta go I just ate a chip and have to vomit, I don't want to get fat

Robin Pasholk
Robin Pasholk5 years ago

I've always been big in both directions [5'10", MYOB pounds]. When I was a teenager, my then doctor decided I needed to get down to the weight his charts said I should be. He put me on a strict diet. I developed what is now known as anorexia. At my next checkup, he looked at the number on the scales, ignored me and my symptoms, and told me I needed to lose 10 more pounds. I then told him what he could do with his diet and charts after folding them till they were all sharp corners and marinating them overnight in concentrated poison ivy juice, and went back to my normal active lifestyle and hearty diet--both of which I still follow today at age 60.

Wesley Struebing
Wesley Struebing5 years ago

As has been pointed out elsewhere here, BMI is at best a sort of indicator of "obesity", and in too many cases just does NOT fit.