Despite conflicting studies on obesity, most Americans think the problem remains serious

07/14/05

Many do not believe scientific experts are overestimating the health risks

Boston, MA -- The past year has seen scientific studies that have varied in their estimates of the seriousness of obesity and overweight and their impact on premature death.[1] A new opinion poll by the Harvard School of Public Health finds that most Americans have not changed their minds about the seriousness of the obesity problem and do not believe that scientific experts are overestimating the health risks of obesity. In addition, they are no less likely than a year ago to be keeping track of calories, fat content, or the amount of carbohydrates they eat.

Three-fourths of Americans rate obesity as an "extremely"(34%) or "very"(41%) serious public health problem in the United States. In addition, the majority of Americans believe that scientific experts have been portraying accurately (58%) or even underestimating (22%) the health risks of being obese. Very few Americans reported believing that the health risks were being overestimated by scientific experts (15%).

"Even after all the criticism that too much attention is being paid to obesity, Americans still see this as a very serious problem for the country," said Robert J. Blendon, Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Counting calories, carbohydrates, and fats

The poll also finds approximately the same number of Americans in 2005 as in 2004 reporting that they are keeping track of the amount of calories (32% 2005, 35% 2004), fat content (47%, 46%) and the amount of carbohydrates (36%, 36%) in their daily diet. In addition, the survey finds a small increase in the number of Americans who report that they are seriously trying to lose weight from 27% in 2004 to 32% in 2005. This includes more than half (54%) of people who consider themselves to be overweight.

Obesity and Mortality

A number of issues were raised by recent studies about obesity including whether more Americans die each year from the effects of obesity than from the effects of smoking and tobacco, and whether people who are moderately overweight are more likely to die prematurely or develop a serious chronic illness than those who are at the recommended weight. Forty-one percent of Americans reported believing that the same number of people in the US die from the effects of being seriously overweight as from the effects of smoking and tobacco. In addition, half of the public (51%) thought that someone who is moderately overweight would be more likely than someone who is the recommended weight to die prematurely. However, 73% thought that a moderately overweight person would be more likely than someone at the recommended weight to develop a chronic illness such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

"Americans are pretty certain that being moderately overweight leads to serious health problems," said Blendon, "but they are not convinced that it leads to premature death."

Trust in scientific experts

The survey finds that trust in scientific experts on the issue of obesity is mixed. Only 48% of Americans reported having a "great deal" (14%) or a "good amount" (34%) of trust in the advice scientific experts give people about how to control their weight. However, 61% of Americans said they paid a lot (13%) or a fair amount (48%) of attention to the nutritional recommendations from scientific experts about how to control their weight.

Few Americans (36%) reported that they had read or seen any news stories about the recent differences in scientific findings around whether people who are moderately overweight are no more likely to die prematurely than people who are at the recommended weight. Approximately one-half (52%) of those who read or saw any news stories about the differences in scientific findings said that these stories would make no difference in the likelihood that they would pay attention in the future to advice from scientific experts on how to control their weight; only 11% said these stories would make them less likely to pay attention.

The 2004 trend data come from an ABC News/Time poll, May 10-16, 2004.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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