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Australian Research Studies Perceptions of Obese Persons

People who are very obese are less likely to believe they’ll be able to lose their weight than those who are mildly to moderately obese. That’s the finding of a study of over 100 obese Australians this year, the first of this kind conducted in that country. The interview-based research sought to understand how clinically overweight persons perceived their relationship to their weight and possibility of weight loss. It was led by Monash University and paid for by an Australian Research Council grant.

The participants whose Body Mass Index (BMI) of 40 or more – that is, severely obese – felt that they and their bodies were at war, and held themselves responsible for their condition, according to the the study’s co-author, Dr. Samantha Thomas, Head of Monash University’s Consumer Health Resource Group.

“Severely obese individuals felt an urgent and desperate need to lose weight, but felt completely powerless to do so,” said Dr. Thomas. “Most felt worried and scared about the potential health consequences of their weight. Most felt blamed and ashamed by public health and education campaigns about obesity, which did little to actually help them address their weight.”

The results were different for those who were categorized as mildly to moderately obese. Dr. Thomas said that they realized their weight was significantly above normal, but didn’t feel it necessary to reduce for health or reasons of emotional well-being.

According to Dr. Thomas, “Those individuals with a BMI between 30 and 40 believed they could lose weight if they needed to, but did not feel this was an urgent health priority as most felt physically healthy. “Most of the study participants in this category deliberately sought to distance themselves from public health messages about obesity and the word obesity because of the social stigma attached to the condition. They also stigmatized those who were bigger than themselves.”

Public health messages and healthy weight loss aren’t  reaching the people who most need to be reached, concluded Dr. Thomas. “The campaigns don’t seem to be having much of an effect. Those in the mild-moderately obese category said their weight creates feelings of social isolation or discrimination, yet don’t fully understand the health risks associated with the extra kilos.”

“In contrast, people with a significant weight issue realised they were at an extremely high risk of disease but didn’t feel they could change. Further confirmation that the stigma and social stereotyping associated with obesity — including from government campaigns — is vastly impacting on individuals’ beliefs and behaviours.

“Society’s attitudes need to change, governments need to refocus health messages and we need to accept obesity as a serious health issue that addresses a person’s well-being not just the added weight.”

Eighteen percent of Australian adults are estimated to be clinically obese, with a BMI of 30 or more. Two percent of these fall into the severe (BMI of 40 or more) category. This is a small percentage of the obesity total, but studies, both in Australia and in other countries, are showing that severe obesity is increasing twice as fast as obesity generally.

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