Why public health campaigns and the BMI scale may do more harm than good- claim

Dr Oli Williams, Research Associate in the University’s Department of Health Sciences, has recently shared why well-intentioned public health campaigns such as the sugar tax might not have the intended effect, and potentially even exacerbate disparities in health.

In a recent podcast with registered nutritionist Laura Thomas PhD, Dr Williams stresses that dealing with pre-existing social inequalities should take precedence over simplistic public health campaigns that put the burden of responsibility on individuals.

He explains that these campaigns tend to widen the health gap between richer and poorer people because they leave unaddressed the social factors that impact people’s health and influence the choices they are able to make. He also outlined the detrimental impacts of weight stigmatisation and body shaming and why moving away from an obsession with weight-loss would promote health.

Co- Founder of the Act With Love (AWL) art collective, Dr Williams recently collaborated with Jade Sarson to create an evidence-based comic book The Weight of Expectation. The WoE comic visualises his research into the social determinants of obesity, and tells the story of how stigma associated with bodyweight and size gets under the skin.

The comic was launched at the Attenborough Arts Centre in March and prints were exhibited as part of the University’s DeStress Fest. The exhibition will be restaged at the Christmas Steps Gallery in Bristol 17-21 July with talks about the WoE project on Thursday 19 July.

Dr Williams is also working with Professor Graham Martin as part of the SAPPHIRE Group to develop guidelines and tools for health research organisations, to make research design and practice more inclusive and effective by facilitating the involvement of the public, patients and carers.

Dr Williams said: “There is a clear link between social inequality and obesity. Despite this the strategy for the war that has been declared on the ‘obesity epidemic’ places blame on the individual for their condition rather than more seriously addressing the social factors which make a ‘healthy lifestyle’ an unrealistic aim for many in society.

“This comic is based on the experiences of people who were not lacking in motivation (they attended a weekly weight-loss group) but still struggled to maintain a so-called healthy lifestyle due to the challenges they faced in everyday life. One challenge which we pay specific attention to in this comic is weight-based stigma. My research has shown that if the goal is to promote health this stigma is both unhelpful and ineffective. So we wanted to illustrate in the comic how this stigma impacts people’s lives and actually acts as a barrier to the adoption of health promoting behaviours like being physically active.

“We felt it was important to do this because a better understanding of the effects of stigma would help to improve public health. It has been gratifying but depressing that so many people have recognised their own experiences in our comic. We would all benefit from a different approach to health promotion being taken so let’s come together and call for change.”