weight bias research: how are we feeling about obesity?

by Ted Kyle, RPh, MBA, OAC National Board Member and Founder of ConscienHealth

The Obesity Action Coalition (OAC) is in the midst of a big project to reduce weight bias and stigma, led by the OAC’s James Zervios, Vice President of Marketing and Communications. It’s a challenging subject that brings strong emotions into play. So, research to mark our starting point has to measure how we’re feeling about obesity. And it turns out that the words people use can tell us a lot.

But the question becomes, how do we measure the emotion in words? To find the answer, we teamed up with experts in mathematical science at the U.S. Military Academy.

Disgust and Sadness

Diana Thomas and her colleagues used natural language processing to analyze 1,070 responses to an open-ended question from U.S. adults. “In your opinion, what does the American public think of people with obesity?”

Researchers used the NRC Emotion Lexicon to name the emotions in the words that came back. By far, the most frequent emotions were disgust and sadness. That’s a pretty good reflection of the foundation for bias that we see in how the media depicts obesity.

They also analyzed word groupings to see which pairs and triplets of words popped up the most. From the analysis of trigrams, the top narrative was clear. Respondents told us the public believes people are lazy if they have obesity. Eat too much was a very distant second.

Hearts and Minds

Right now, emotions are intense. The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted many, many lives. It has taken the lives of almost a million people around the world. If a person is older or living with obesity, the threat is especially significant.

So this analysis has important information for us in two ways. For one thing, it tells us what people are feeling about obesity. But it also shows us how we can listen to the words people are using to gain some insight into the emotions they’re feeling. And when the subject is obesity, listening is always a good place to start. It’s a step toward changing both hearts and minds.

About the Author:
Ted Kyle, RPh, MBA, is a pharmacist and healthcare innovation professional who works with health and obesity experts for sound policy and innovation to address obesity. Mr. Kyle serves on the Board of Directors for the Obesity Action Coalition, advises The Obesity Society on advocacy issues, and consults with organizations addressing the needs of people living with obesity. His widely-read daily commentary at ConscienHealth.org reaches more than 10,000 thought leaders in health and obesity.