Obesity is a complex issue that requires more understanding than simply labelling it as a choice, according to psychologists who want to re-frame discussions around the issue.

Making people feel ashamed of their weight and referring to ‘obese people’ doesn’t help us lead healthier lifestyles, while greater use of psychological evidence and expertise is needed to design campaigns. That’s the view of the British Psychological Society, which now wants to see a national move to combat obesity in the same way a government campaign has successfully reduced smoking.

In a new report called Psychological Perspectives on Obesity, the BPS outlines that obesity ‘is not a ‘choice’. The report says: “People become overweight or obese as a result of a complex combination of biological and psychological factors combined with environmental and social influences. Obesity is not simply down to an individual’s lack of willpower.” 

The BPS lists genetic risks, school, work and social environments, stress and life trauma as some of the factors putting people at risk of an unhealthy weight. Chartered BPS member Dr Angel Chater, one of the report’s authors, said: “To address obesity, we need an understanding of all its causes – biological, psychological and social – and use approaches to behaviour change for prevention and weight management that are informed by psychology.”

BPS chief executive Sarb Bajwa added: “The government acknowledged that obesity was a threat to the health of the nation back in 1991, but the problem has continued to get worse. 

“We need a similar effort on obesity to the one we have seen on smoking. It has taken action at all levels, for decades, from government policy to helping individual smokers, but we are now seeing significant reductions in the level of smoking and the health problems it causes. Psychologists have the science and clinical experience to help the health service do the same for obesity.”

Cancer Research UK faced a backlash earlier this year for outlining obesity as a bigger cause of some cancers than smoking, with many commentators accusing the charity of fat shaming. The BPS is now calling for renewed language around obesity, such as describing people as ‘living with obesity’ rather than referring to obese people, and training all health professionals working in obesity services to better understand the contributing factors.

According to the latest Health Survey for England, which monitors the nation’s health and care, nearly two thirds of adults in England are overweight or obese, increasing their risk of diabetes, heart conditions and some types of cancer. Being a healthy weight is one of five lifestyle factors that can help people lead a longer life, along with not smoking, not drinking too much, being active and eating the right foods.

If you’re working towards losing weight, you might be inspired by our colleagues who lost the equivalent of a whole person between them in our Activequote weight challenge! You might also be interested in these small steps to a healthier life, with useful tips on achieving those five health markers.