New media needs to improve communication about weight and health

There is a belief among people that weight and health is a matter of personal responsibility and therefore little can be done on a policy level to affect individual behavior. But, a panel moderated by editor of Health Affairs, Susan Dentzer, found that uninformed and unrealistic media who promote this view may not only be negatively effect individual behavior, but also how policy makers approach issues of weight and health.

The panel was held on Capitol Hill and discussed the media’s role in shaping the policy environment surrounding weight and health. Panelists discussed whether policymakers believe that weight is an individual issue or a public health problem and whether media plays a role in driving who is responsible and who should take action.

“In a time of ongoing budget tightening and confusion regarding health care coverage, we must find a way to create policies that address obesity and eating disorders, without letting our own biases get in the way,” said Christine Ferguson, J.D., Director of the STOP Obesity Alliance. “There is no evidence that stigmatizing weight-related health issues prevents or treats these problems – in fact, the opposite appears to be true. It is an important opportunity for members of both the obesity and eating disorders communities to advocate for a focus on health rather than weight as a measure of well-being.”

The panel created a new analysis of media coverage which showed where the media could improve in their coverage of these topics. The analysis was based on a series of media guidelines provided by the STOP Obesity Alliance and the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) last year.

The guidelines said that coverage of these topics should focus more on the benefits of improving one’s health, rather than a focus on appearance. When looking at a comparison of coverage among “Beltway” audiences, they found that 75 percent of articles were not included in the review because they provided little to no substantive content. The articles focused on weight-loss tips, characterized as “fighting flab”, “shrinking your middle” or “looking leaner naked,” but failed to note the health implications.

“Our conversation today and the new media analysis echo the ongoing need for us to address the societal pressures and the unrealistic images that we know can be contributing factors among people who develop eating disorders, depression and other esteem issues,” said Lynn Grefe, President and CEO of NEDA. “It is why we have come together to address these issues. These pressures affect all of us.”

The panel was called “Pounds and Policy: Effectively Communicating About Weight and Health,” and featured experts from the fields of media, communications, eating disorders and obesity:

  • Jean Kilbourne, EdD, media critic, author and expert on advertising and women
  • Sarah Kliff, health reporter POLITICO
  • Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, RD, Professor, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota
  • Rebecca Puhl, PhD, Director of Research, Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University
  • Chevese Turner, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Binge Eating Disorders Association

The STOP Obesity Alliance and NEDA will continue work and outreach to the media and policymakers regarding the joint guidelines.

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