Media's Effect on Weight Loss Policy

7 years ago

Could the way the media communicates about weight loss actually help stop the obesity epidemic in our country?   Well, it hardly seems possible considering that most of the media coverage either promotes unrealistic body image or perpetuates the stigma associated with being overweight.  A recent Yale study found that online news outlets are the worst offenders.

Obesity researchers from Yale University say that online news outlets overwhelmingly use negative images of overweight people - in ill-fitting clothes or eating fast food - to illustrate stories about obesity. The practice perpetuates fat stigma, the researchers say, and may contribute to obesity itself.

But thanks to a panel from NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association) and the Stop Obesity Alliance, better guidelines for the media could begin to make a difference in public opinion and public health.

From a post by Rita Watson at - NEDA and STOP Obesity Alliance Panel Want Healthy Weight in News...

Rebecca Puhl, PhD, Director of Research, Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, over the week-end expressed her views: “What I am particularly concerned about is the stigmatizing nature of existing messages and communication towards people who are affected by obesity. We need to ensure that we are not harming the people that we are trying to help by ensuring that efforts to address obesity or eating disorders do not promote stigma or prejudice."  She added that "efforts to prevent and treat these issues must be supportive.”

From Science Codex - Are Words Weighing Down the Development of Policy for Better Health?

Unrealistic and uninformed media portrayals of weight not only can negatively influence individual behavior, but can impact how policymakers approach issues of weight and health. The result, according to experts from the Strategies to Overcome and Prevent (STOP) Obesity Alliance and the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), is a continued belief that these issues are largely a matter of personal responsibility and that little can or should be done in policy to address them.

I totally agree.  Focusing on the negative isn't helpful, and may actually be causing harm to the very people who are already at the greatest risk.  Clearly, the message is out about the harmful effects of obesity, now the focus needs be on promoting a healthy lifestyle.  So, how can the media help with that?  Here are a few of the guidelines released by the Rudd Center...

  • Avoid weight-based stereotypes (e.g., such as obese persons are “lazy” or “lacking in willpower”).
  • Present balanced coverage about the causes and solutions for obesity, consider different sides of the
    debate (e.g., societal versus personal responsibility). Productive debates can only occur when different
    positions are adequately and accurately presented. Very often, media coverage of obesity is biased with
    an over-emphasis on individual responsibility, ignoring important societal, economic, biological, and
    environmental contributors of obesity.
  • When selecting an image, video, or photograph of an obese person, consider the following questions:

1. Does the image imply or reinforce negative stereotypes?
2. Does the image portray an obese person in a respectful manner? Is the individual’s dignity maintained?
3. What are the alternatives? Can another photo or image convey the same message and eliminate possible bias?
4. What is the news value of the particular image?
5. Who might be offended, and why?
6. Is there any missing information from the photograph?
7. What are the possible consequences of publishing the image?

Here is an example of how a media campaign (aimed at helping the epidemic of childhood obesity) can cross the line and possibly do more harm than good...

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Ultimately, a focus on the benefits of a healthy weight needs to replace the idea that our weight determines are significance.  One way the media could help communicate this message is by focusing less on the overwhelming aspect of obesity as a whole and more on small steps anyone can take to getting to a healthy weight.

Did you know that even a 5 to 10 pound weight loss can have significant health benefits?  Here is an example from the CDC website...

The good news is that no matter what your weight loss goal is, even a modest weight loss, such as 5 to 10 percent of your total body weight, is likely to produce health benefits, such as improvements in blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugars.

For example, if you weigh 200 pounds, a 5 percent weight loss equals 10 pounds, bringing your weight down to 190 pounds. While this weight may still be in the "overweight" or "obese" range, this modest weight loss can decrease your risk factors for chronic diseases related to obesity.

Other examples...

From the American Heart Association...

The simplest, positive change you can make to effectively improve your heart health is to start walking. It's enjoyable, free, easy, social and great exercise.

From The American Cancer Society...

The first step to cooking healthy is to stock your kitchen with a variety of foods that you can throw together for healthy meals in a hurry. Keep these foods on hand for fast meals on busy nights.

What do you think?   Does the media perpetuate the negative stereotypes associated with being overweight?  Could the media effect the obesity epidemic in a positive way by changing their message to a more helpful and less judgmental one?  Let us know your thoughts in comments.

Contributing Editor Catherine Morgan
Also at

More from health

Health & Wellness
by HelloFlo N/A | 16 hours ago
Health & Wellness
by Maggie Giuffrida | 19 hours ago
Health & Wellness
by Catherine Conelly | 19 hours ago
Health & Wellness
by Caitlin Flynn | a day ago
Health & Wellness
by Michele Borboa MS | 2 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Elizabeth Yuko | 2 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Megan Fu | 2 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Elizabeth Yuko | 2 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Elizabeth Yuko | 2 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Elizabeth Yuko | 3 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Catherine Conelly | 4 days ago
Health & Wellness
by HelloFlo N/A | 4 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Elizabeth Yuko | 4 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Megan Fu | 4 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Caitlin Flynn | 4 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Andrea Jordan | 4 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Sara Lindberg | 5 days ago