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Thin People Believe Obesity is Caused by Diet, Lack of Exercise

Thin People Believe Obesity is Caused by Diet, Lack of ExerciseNew research suggests whether a person believes obesity is caused by overeating or by a lack of exercise predicts his or her actual body mass.

The obesity epidemic is a pressing public health issue as two-thirds of U.S. adults are classified as overweight or obese. The trend toward obesity is a global phenomenon and a health pandemic even among Third World nations.

In new research published in Psychological Science, researchers Brent McFerran and Anirban Mukhopadhyay, Ph.D., used an online study to determine whether individual beliefs might play a role in these trends.

They discovered people seem to subscribe to one of two major beliefs about the primary cause of obesity.

“There was a clear demarcation,” said McFerran. “Some people overwhelmingly implicated poor diet, and a roughly equal number implicated lack of exercise.

“Genetics, to our surprise, was a far distant third.”

McFerran and Mukhopadhyay wanted to dig deeper to see if the pattern could be replicated and, if so, what implications it might have for behavior. To do this, they conducted a series of studies across five countries on three continents.

Data from participants in Korea, the United States, and France showed the same overall pattern. Not only did people tend to implicate diet or exercise as the leading cause of obesity, people who implicated diet as the primary cause of obesity actually had lower BMIs than those who implicated lack of exercise.

“What surprised me the most was the fact that we found lay theories to have an effect on BMI over and above other known factors, such as socioeconomic status, age, education, various medical conditions, and sleep habits,” said McFerran.

The researchers hypothesized that the link between people’s beliefs and their BMI might have to do with how much they eat.

A study with Canadian participants revealed that participants who linked obesity to lack of exercise ate significantly more chocolates than those who linked obesity to diet.

And a study with participants in Hong Kong showed that participants who were primed to think about the importance of exercise ate more chocolate than those primed to contemplate diet.

These findings provide evidence that our everyday beliefs about obesity may actually influence our eating habits — and our body mass.

According to Mukhopadhyay, this is “the first research that has drawn a link between people’s beliefs and the obesity crisis, which is growing as fast as people’s waistlines are.”

The new findings suggest that, in order to be effective, public health campaigns may need to target people’s beliefs just as much as they target their behaviors.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Overweight woman exercising photo by shutterstock.

Thin People Believe Obesity is Caused by Diet, Lack of Exercise

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Thin People Believe Obesity is Caused by Diet, Lack of Exercise. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 19 Jun 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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