Finding fault: Survey weighs the blame for America’s obesity rate

Forget healthy eating, when food desert dwellers get hungry, they’re just looking for fuel.

Among the third of adults considered obese, people living in areas with few grocery stores can place some blame on the inability to access healthy food options, food activists and researchers say.

Americans believe otherwise.

In a survey of 774 people, 94 percent said individuals are primarily or somewhat to blame for the rise in obesity, according to Brenna Ellison, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois and Jayson Lusk, Ph.D., of Oklahoma State University.

“The U.S. has an individualistic culture,” Ellison says. “So it is not too surprising people view obesity as an issue of personal responsibility.”

More than one-third of adults and almost 17 percent of youth are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity is considered having a body mass index of 30 or above.

However, doctors and food activists say people who live in food deserts can’t take all the blame.

Residents living in areas with few grocery stores and less access to healthy options don’t have much control over what they eat, says Dr. Adiba Khan at the Inner-City Muslim Action Network on West 63rd Street. Instead, families on food stamps rely on convenience stores.

“So what I mean by that is there’s a strategy in the foods that are canned actually cost less than fresh foods,” Khan says. “That isn’t the case if you travel worldwide.”

Ellison’s survey asked people to categorize restaurants, grocery stores, government policies, food manufacturers, farmers, parents or individuals as “primarily to blame,” “somewhat to blame” or “not to blame” for the rise in obesity.

“People who believe the government should be involved in economic affairs also believe the government and agribusiness is to blame for the rise in obesity,” Ellison says. “These findings seem to contradict one another in that those individuals who prefer government intervention also believe the government caused the problem.”

In Illinois, the government taxes sugar-sweetened beverages. If consumers don’t see the higher tax on the price tag of sodas, they probably won’t be deterred from purchasing them, Ellison says, referring to a study at Cornell University.

Debbie Hillman, co-founder of the Evanston Food Council, said policymakers need to create a level playing field for everyone but haven’t been able to do that because they aren’t talking to the people considered obese.

“It’s a huge mistake to try and write policy for any one group,” Hillman says. “The point is to try and create a society in which everybody has equal access to everything.”

Khan says she has a vision to put a dent in obesity. Policymakers should consider ways to make people aware of food ingredients, she says, regulate food stamps so people can only buy foods that will keep them at their ideal weight and create zoning laws so that large corporations, like McDonald’s, aren’t concentrated in one area.

“Obesity is a preventable death,” Khan says, “yet as a nation, we’re not all on the same page to want to change it.”

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