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"Weakness of Will:" Challenges in the Struggle Against Obesity

Obesity is a complex problem and it may require more than just physical change.
by khepler Jul 21, 2015
Contributors: Ryan Pollock

Obesity is a complex problem and it may require more than just physical change.

We have all heard about how the “obesity epidemic” in American, but the statistics can still seem alarming. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately a third of adults and 17% of children are obese, or have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of at least 30. While the BMI is not a perfect measurement, scoring over 30 is correlated with a number of health problems: “heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death” (CDC). Obesity also has an economic impact. In 2008 the CDC estimated that the medical cost stemming from obesity 147 billion dollars, and that medical costs for those who are obese are $1,429 higher per year than those of average weight. The serious consequences of this situation demand ethical examination. What changes are necessary to combat rising obesity rates? What sorts of practices contribute to this situation? These are not easy questions, and no doubt require looking at numerous social, political, and economic factors. To begin this series, however, I will examine the issue from an individual point of view: what are the challenges that face those looking to make a healthy life-style change?

At one level the answer to how to make such a change is simple: a healthy diet and exercise. We need to manage the size of our portions, stay away from junk food, and carve out time each day for physical activity. But in reality its never just that simple. There are cases where the problem is genetic, and socio-economic factors also play a significant role in how easy it is to live a healthy lifestyle. Yet, even people in more favorable circumstances encounter these struggles. Furthermore, lack of knowledge does not seem to be the primary issue. Not everybody is an expert on nutrition, but almost everybody knows when they have overeaten. And not everybody is an expert on exercise, but we all know that it is important to elevate our heart rate and break a sweat. Why, then, if most people have at least some general sense of how to live a healthy lifestyle is obesity such a problem? Why is it so difficult to convert one’s knowledge about what ought to be done into action?

This phenomenon, instances where we experience “weakness of will,” has long puzzled philosophers. So much, in fact, that Socrates denied (in Plato’s dialogue Protagoras) it is even possible. In his view nobody willingly does what they know to be the wrong thing. Yet,  even long after we have fully recognize the deadly effects smoking has upon our health, people still use tobacco. And even though the basic steps that need to be taken to live a healthy life are widely known, obesity rates remain high. The problem, then, runs deeper than merely lacking knowledge. In fact, this is probably the reason why weight loss television shows such as The Biggest LoserHeavy, and Extreme Weight Loss are so popular. For one who has become accustomed to a sedentary life-style, and has developed unhealthy habits, the kind of life transformation that occurs on these shows can be a monumental challenge. This fact requires careful evaluation of how to overcome such challenges.

In the next post of "Weakness of Will", I talk to two State College residents who have helped people do just that.