Stigma and the addiction paradigm for obesity: lessons from 1950s America

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AimsTo discuss an historical episode in which obesity was conceptualized as an addictive disorder and declared to be a major epidemic in the early postwar United States. This history illuminates past consequences of framing obesity as an addiction in ways that may inform constructive policy responses today.MethodsReview of secondary and primary sources, including archival documents, relating to obesity in biomedical and popular thought of the 1940s and 1950s.ResultsIn the United States in the late 1940s and 1950s, new medical thinking about obesity reinterpreted overweight and obesity as chiefly the consequence of addiction (understood in the then dominant psychodynamic theory as a psychological defect, oral fixation). This new conception was rapidly taken up in popular discourse and clinical practice, with adverse effects through amplification of weight stigma. Further, in the conservative political context, the addiction concept contributed to an ineffective policy response to the alarming new epidemiological evidence about obesity's consequences. Despite a lack of evidence for efficacy of the intervention, public health efforts focused on correcting individual eating behaviour among obese people by encouraging self-help in lay groups modelled, in part, on Alcoholics Anonymous. Population-level intervention was neglected.ConclusionsCurrent public health policy initiatives must be mindful of the risks of reframing obesity as an addiction. These include inadvertently reinforcing stigma, narrowing responses to those aiming to modify individual behaviour and biology and neglecting population policies aiming to reduce the consumption of energy-dense foods, as all occurred in the 1950s United States.

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