A Consumers International (CI) survey of just under 3,000 people in six countries, revealed people rank “unhealthy diet” well behind war and smoking, when asked which caused the largest number of deaths globally. On average 36% of respondents selected war as the leading cause of death, compared to 18% for unhealthy diet.
The European Association for the Study of Obesity’s (EASO) perception survey found three-quarters of obese people miscategorised themselves as only overweight, with respondents in general underestimating levels of obesity in their countries. The research, involving 14,000 participants across seven European countries, also revealed a poor awareness of some of the more serious risks associated with obesity, including cancer and stroke.
“More than 80% of people across the countries couldn’t identify unhealthy diet as the biggest contributor to death, out of the factors listed. There’s that lack of understanding among consumers, about just how big a global crisis this is, really,” said Anna Glayzer, advocacy manager at CI.
“There’s no country in the world that’s succeeded in reversing obesity – it’s increasing in every single region, it’s costing US$2tn a year. I think what’s quite striking is the UN target on obesity is just to halt the rise of obesity, which was seen as a realistic target. But it’s fairly dire, really, that that’s the best we can hope for – and we’re not on course to meet that target at all,” she added.
The CI survey did reveal support for interventions to improve diets and consumer information, with 95% of respondents saying they supported or strongly supported action to reduce fat, sugar and salt in food, 97% approving better labelling and food information, and 91% in favour of restrictions on marketing of unhealthy food. The vast majority also agreed on the need for healthy diets, with 71% ranking it very important, and 27% important.
Lifestyle, not disease
According to EASO’s research, 79% of participants believed obesity was caused by lifestyle choices, with only 46% recognising it as a disease, in contrast to current medical thinking about the condition. Perhaps reflecting this, 41% believed state health services should pay for such surgery, with more believing people’s individual insurance (58%) or the individual themselves (50%) should bear the cost.
“It is clear that the vast majority of people regard obesity as a problem purely of personal lifestyle, rather than recognising that there are other underlying issues which society needs to address. Governments, policymakers and health authorities should be greatly concerned by the findings of this survey. It confirms that much greater effort is needed to educate people about the implications,” said Euan Woodward, executive director of EASO.
Glayzer said governments should focus on interventions that work, such as marketing restrictions and better food labelling, and added: “We’re calling on a convention, using a similar mechanism to the framework for tobacco control – we’re not calling for food to be treated like tobacco, but we do think it’s possible to define unhealthy versus healthy food, and take measures to protect people from unhealthy food.”