Blog
09
11
2018

Is obesity a choice?

In my time as a fitness professional, I’ve found that certain central, almost philosophical questions arise perennially, always to some controversy. Among these is the question of whether or not obesity (or, perhaps better phrased, being obese) is a choice. Unfortunately, for reasons I can only guess at, much of the commentary on this question has fallen back on what I perceive to be a rather rough, reductionist, drill sergeant mentality, a worldview in which we are fundamentally in control of our actions and thus primarily (or even entirely) responsible for the outcomes of our life. While this is a perspective I can appreciate to some extent (I’ll return to this point later in this piece), I fear it fails to account for meaningful nuance. As such, I’d like to do my best to offer an objective, complete answer to the question at hand.

First, I think it’s important we ask the right question. If you’ve ever been in a classroom environment, you may have heard that there is no such thing as a stupid question. While it is not my intention to be elitist or condescending, and I understand that such a statement is intended to encourage engagement on the part of students, I disagree with it. Specifically, I feel that some questions simply do a better job of accounting for the context surrounding what they ask, and thus open the door to better answers – answers which, again, account for all variables at play. For example, if I were to ask you whether or not Donald Trump is a good president, the lack of explanation of what I mean by “good” could lead to superficial disagreement, and this is further exacerbated by the question naturally leading only to a “Yes.” or “No.” – responses which are self-evidently inadequate given the number of factors at play. A better question, therefore, might take the form of me asking you what you believe a good president to be, whether or not you believe Donald Trump fits that conception of a good president, and why. In asking such a question, I’m shining a light on relevant assumptions (what it means for a president to be good), asking the core question (whether or not you believe Trump to be a good president), and allowing for important elaboration (why you believe him to be good or bad). When asking whether or not obesity is a choice, we need ensuring we’re asking a similarly good question.

Thus, I believe we need to clarify our conception of choice. Unfortunately, this discussion does quickly tread on the domain of philosophy, raising important, but not fitness-related, questions relating to free will. In the interest of maintaining an appropriate scope, I think it’s adequate to say that something is a choice when your decision making meaningful influences the outcome. For example, if I ask if you’d prefer vanilla or chocolate ice cream, you have a choice, as what you tell me will affect the ice cream you receive. On the other hand, if I simply hand you one or the other, you had no choice. Now, I acknowledge this may seem a pointlessly elementary exercise, but you’ll see how it become important in answering our core question.

In addition, I think it’s important to understand that the best answers to these questions are not binary. After all, a condition like obesity arises out of not one factor, but many. As such, if we’re to truly understand the extent to which obesity is a choice, we need to understand the the factors involved and the degree to which we control those. Thus, rather than asking simply, “Is obesity a choice?”, I think we’re better off asking “Is obesity a choice, and if so, to what degree?”

At this point, we need to examine the actual contributors to obesity. Note that any one of these could potentially make for its own article, so in the interest of brevity, I offer only a summary.

First, we don’t control genetics. Therefore, to whatever degree genetics influence basal metabolic rate, appetite, one’s tendency to fidget and otherwise burn calories outside the scope of exercise, and any condition which otherwise affects energy expenditure, obesity is not a choice.

Second, we don’t control, or have very minimal control, over early childhood experience. This means that to whatever degree what we were fed during childhood, what we were made to do physically, how we slept, the stress we were exposed to, and any other factor which affects risk of obesity in adulthood, obesity is not a choice. Again: little to no control, little to no choice.

Finally, and importantly, we don’t control everything that happens to us in adulthood, nor do we have complete control over our responses – physical, psychological, and behavioral. Thus, to whatever extent these variables influence our likelihood of developing obesity, obesity is not a choice.

These considerations alone may lead you to the conclusion that no, obesity is not a choice, and this may have various implications as to how we approach those with obesity. However, for a complete picture, we need to consider contributing factors over which we do have control. Interestingly, having thought about this for some time, I’ve found that all of this fall into one primary umbrella: conscious decision-making. In other words, to the degree you decide consciously, and without restriction, to eat well or not, or exercise or not, or sleep properly or not, obesity is a choice. It seems to me that everything else falls into one of the aforementioned categories of variables over which we have little or no control, which is to say we don’t choose them.

Although this is not a direct response to the question at hand, I do think it’s important we consider the implications of the answer I’ve offered. After all, I think it’s unambiguous that one of the intended implications of the claim that obesity is a choice is that those who are obese are responsible for being obese, and that this is somehow reflective of their character. Therefore, to the extent that obesity is outside of our control, thus not a choice, thus not something for which we are responsible, it’s a phenomenon which happens to people rather than by people. On the one hand, I do think this has the potential to open a door to a newfound respect for those who are overweight and obese, and I believe this important, as degradation is not an effective or ethical means of generating positive behavior change. On the other hand, I fear that in considering the factors over which we don’t have control, we risk creating a sense of powerlessness and defeatism, which for the person suffering from obesity could only, in my view, make things worse. Thus, I would encourage a healthy combination of empathy, appreciation of nuance and the multifactorial nature of what we experience, as well as a certain hardheadedness and belief that if you want to bring about a positive outcome, you have the power to do so.

author: Ian McCarthy

Ian is the Director of Online Coaching and Physique Programming at JPS and has years of experience in coaching and delivering some of the highest quality evidence based content in the fitness industry.