Obesity as a public health issue — why York research shows that should change

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Researchers out of York University are calling for an end to the classification of obesity as a significant health issue.

The study “Ideology, obesity and the social determinants of health: a critical analysis of the obesity and health relationship”, published in the journal Critical Public Health, shows a negative effect on the health of obese persons due to the emphasis on obesity as a public health issue.

Dennis Raphael
Dennis Raphael

“(The research) argues against the ingrained belief that obesity is a major public health issue, and instead argues the emphasis on obesity is misguided and actually harmful to health,” said Professor Dennis Raphael, in York University’s School of Health Policy and Management, Faculty of Health.

Raphael contributed to the study, which was based on two major research papers by former York health policy and equity masters students Stella Medvedyuk and Ahmednur Ali, lead authors on the paper.

Based on a critical review of the obesity and health literature, researchers provide five models of how the hypothesized obesity and health relationship is conceptualized. The models were then applied to make sense of how recent Canadian public health reports and clinical practice guidelines conceptualize the issue of obesity, its causes and health effects, and appropriate responses.

The study shows how conformity to dominant models of the obesity and health relationship by health sciences researchers, public health workers, and the media lead to activities that rather than promoting health, actually threaten it, said Raphael.

These dominant models – and the activities derived from them – do so by diverting attention from the far more important issues of the quality and distribution of the social determinants of health. These approaches also stigmatize heavy individuals, doing little to promote their health.

“For these reasons,” he said, “we call for an end to seeing obesity as a significant health issue.”