Obesity and responsibility: Is it time to rethink agency?

Obes Rev. 2021 Aug;22(8):e13270. doi: 10.1111/obr.13270. Epub 2021 May 12.


Despite obesity declared a disease, there still exists considerable weight stigma in both popular culture and health care, which negatively impacts policy making regarding prevention and treatment. While viewed as a choice or a failure of willpower by many, evidence exists to challenge the argument that both weight gain and failure to achieve weight loss maintenance are the individuals' fault due to personal failure or lack of responsibility. In this article, we draw upon literature from obesity treatment, neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and weight stigma to challenge the commonly held beliefs that individuals are free to choose how much they can weigh, and achievement of long-term weight loss maintenance is completely subject to conscious choice. In reality, the regulation of hunger, satiety, energy balance, and body weight takes place in subcortical regions of the brain. Thus, hunger and satiety signals are generated in regions of the brain, which are not associated with conscious experience. This points towards biological determinism of weight and challenges ideas of willpower and resultant moralization regarding body weight regulation. In this article, we will thus argue that in the context of dysregulation of hunger and satiety contributing to the obesity epidemic, a wider discourse related to personal responsibility and the stigma of obesity is needed to enhance understanding, prevention, and treatment of this complex disease. Obesity is a chronic disease requiring personalized treatment. Lifestyle interventions alone may not be enough to achieve medically significant and sustained weight loss for many individuals with obesity. By understanding that obesity is not due to a lack of motivation or willpower, the availability and utilization of additional treatments or combination of treatments such as lifestyle, pharmacotherapy, and surgery are likely to improve the quality of life for many suffering with this disease.

Keywords: conscious experience; obesity; responsibility; stigma.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Obesity* / prevention & control
  • Quality of Life*
  • Satiation
  • Weight Gain
  • Weight Loss