Archive for Monday, March 13, 2017

Why are people obese? Political efforts can be tricky because Republicans and Democrats answer differently, KU research shows

March 13, 2017


Since when did being fat become a political issue?

Some University of Kansas professors say their research has shown that over the past decade, people’s political leanings, along with their own weight categories, increasingly contribute to how they view obesity and what the government should or shouldn’t do about it.

Not surprisingly, Republicans and Democrats view it differently, and that makes for political challenges, said KU professor of political science Don Haider-Markel.

“It gets back to the basic idea that if we can’t agree about the cause of different situations, we’re not going to be able to agree about solutions,” Haider-Markel said.

Don Haider-Markel

Don Haider-Markel

Haider-Markel, who chairs KU’s political science department, and fellow KU political science professor Mark Joslyn recently published their findings in the journal American Politics Research.

What they found was that Republicans of all weights believe individual choices — primarily eating and lifestyle habits — cause obesity, Haider-Markel said.

Democrats, however, were split, he said. Democrats identifying themselves as overweight were more likely to believe genetic factors cause obesity. Healthy-weight Democrats said individual choices cause obesity.

Somewhat more surprisingly, those results showed a portion of each bloc was “cross-pressured” one way or the other by its political ideology, Haider-Markel said.

He said it’s typical for all people to have a self-serving bias — meaning that when a negative circumstance applies to us personally, we’re more likely to say it’s caused by outside factors rather than our own choices.

For Republicans, a person’s circumstances being a result of their own choices is “part and parcel to the conservative ideology,” Haider-Markel said. For obese Republicans, that mindset conflicts with the self-serving bias but not enough to overpower the political ideology that being overweight is their own fault.

Mark Joslyn

Mark Joslyn

“Being Republicans, they should be more likely to say that this is a result of personal choices, but being overweight they should be more likely to say this is out of their control,” Haider-Markel said. “So partisanship in this case overwhelms the motivating self-serving attribution — which is pretty powerful when you think about it.”

For Democrats, the “cross-pressure” shook out a little differently.

On virtually any topic, Haider-Markel said, Democrats are more likely “to take the locus of control away from the individual, and say individual circumstances are in large part outside of the individual’s control, which is consistent with a liberal philosophy that argues, for example, that government can do things to improve people’s lives.”

For obese Democrats, their self-serving bias and their partisanship pushed them in the same direction — to say that genetics caused their weight problems, Haider-Markel said.

But for healthy-weight Democrats, “cross-pressure” from their self-serving bias overpowered their political ideology, he said. They, like Republicans, believed that individual choices cause obesity.

Of course, Haider-Markel said, scientists would say that obesity results from a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors.

Nonetheless — not unlike issues such as sexual orientation or climate change — politics lean heavily on what individuals choose to think is the cause.

Politicization of obesity appears to have amped up in the past decade or so.

Haider-Markel said he and Joslyn started with some data from about 10 years ago that indicated, at that time, political thoughts had less effect on opinions about the causes of obesity.

Their new research shows that now it is very much politicized.

“In some ways I was surprised at how quickly this had come about,” Haider-Markel said, “but also how people respond when they’re cross-pressured.”

Different ideologies about obesity have shown up in recent years’ legislation and debates about it, Haider-Markel said.

Examples include the Obama administration’s efforts to mandate healthier school lunches and require calorie counts on some restaurant menus. There are also local and state-level public health efforts, such as appealing to healthy lifestyles by constructing biking and walking paths to encourage exercise, or so-called “soda-tax” initiatives in major cities including Berkeley, Calif., and Philadelphia.

Joslyn said, in a KU news release about the research, that although soda taxes have gotten a lot of attention, most government action recently seems to be directed toward changing people’s individual behavior. Developing public spaces to encourage fitness and discouraging unhealthy habits by publishing calorie counts are examples.

“If obesity persists in the face of such initiatives, blame and discrimination of obese people is likely to continue,” Joslyn said. “On the other hand, if governments treat obesity similar to diseases that afflict the population, as circumstances beyond the control of individuals, then individual blame and discrimination may diminish.”

Contact KU and higher ed reporter Sara Shepherd
Have a tip or story idea?
More stories


Fred Whitehead Jr. 10 months, 1 week ago

Why are people overweight (including myself)?

We eat too much. We eat too much crap. We do not exercise enough. We are couch potatoes.....Republicans? Democrats???? I think this problem transcends all political notions and recognition.

Eat more REAL food (including fruits and vegies.....NOT fast foods etc.)

.Exercise more than your finger on the remote.........

.Get off the couch and walk around the neighborhood.

What is so difficult about that??

Clara Westphal 10 months, 1 week ago

How many obese people do you see in pictures of people in the 1930's depression era? Many did not get enough to eat and had to work long hours to get what food they did have to eat.

Look at pictures of the bread lines. No obese people are seen there. It is a matter of eating too much and eating the wrong foods that cause obesity. For those who can, a little exercise can make a difference, too. .

Dorothy Hoyt-Reed 10 months, 1 week ago

Are you suggesting that a major economic depression will be good for us? A lot of those skinny people died and/or had health problems from malnutrition. Yes, we eat the wrong foods and need more exercise, but I think we are mostly better off. Although too many people are obese, because of fast food and fried foods. I eat a lot of fruits and veggies and get a good balanced diet, but I'm also a good cook and love good food. That's my problem. And women in my family have metabolisms that shut down after a certain age. My mother ate like a bird in her later years, but never lost weight.

David Holroyd 10 months, 1 week ago

Democrats in Lawrence are thin because they eat food from the Merc.

Republicans in Lawrence are obese because they eat at Long John's. Don't believe me there in a couple of months.

David Holroyd 10 months, 1 week ago

Fred, where is your neighborhood? I want to walk in yours. Do you have nice sidewalks? If not, where are they. The folks Clara talks about walked on dirt roads, gravel roads and they stayed healthy. So why does Richard Heckler want paved sidewalks?

Dorothy Hoyt-Reed 10 months, 1 week ago

More romanticizing the "good ole days". Those people in the soup lines were starving and not getting a balanced diet. Yes, farmers in good times ate well, but got a lot more physical exercise. But the people in the depression weren't healthy skinny.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.