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Better access to psychological support needed for dieters

‘Obesity is not a choice’, and fat shaming is unhelpful

Jo Carlowe

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

A lack of psychological support for people trying to lose weight is undermining efforts to tackle the UK’s obesity crisis.

This is the message from the British Psychological Society (BPS). 

With almost two thirds of adults in the UK currently classed as being overweight or obese, the BPS is calling for an end to ‘patchy access’ to psychological support through NHS weight management services.

In a briefing paper published today, the BPS argues that obesity is not a choice or down to an individual’s lack of willpower, but due to a complex combination of biological, social and psychological factors. 

Evidence is clear that providing psychological support for people who are overweight or obese to help them understand and change their behaviour is just as important as advice about diet and physical activity, the BPS argues. 

NICE guidelines highlight the importance of people being able to access psychological expertise through NHS weight management services to help them understand the underlying causes of obesity and to change their behaviour.  Yet, according to the BPS, despite these guidelines and significant evidence that psychological expertise results in a better chance at permanently changing unhealthy behaviours, many NHS weight management services are not providing this help.

Ahead of a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Psychology, the BPS has published a new briefing paper, Understanding Obesity: The psychological dimensions of a public health crisis, which outlines the important role that psychologists have in helping to reduce levels of obesity in the UK. It also highlights the stigmatising negative associations that society has of people who are overweight or obese, leading to blaming individuals rather than addressing the underlying causes.

Commenting, chief executive of the BPS, Sarb Bajwa, said: “There is a real gap in the provision of weight management services that means many people are not getting the psychological support they need to reach or maintain a healthy weight. For many, the mantra of ‘eat less, move more’ just isn’t enough to tackle the barriers they face to a healthier lifestyle.

“The evidence is clear – if people have the opportunity to explore the underlying reasons they struggle to lose weight they have a better chance at permanently changing their behaviours. That’s why we need to ensure universal access to psychological support for people seeking help to manage their weight.”

In addition to better access to psychological expertise, the BPS is also calling for:

  • A psychological approach to weight management to be embedded in all multi-disciplinary teams delivering weight management services
  • Health campaigns targeting weight management to be made more effective by avoiding framing obesity only as a simple choice
  • Weight loss services to cater for everyone who has an unhealthy weight, including those with a BMI over 50 who currently often struggle to access services
  • Incentives to conduct further research into tackling the stigma that prevents people from accessing weight loss services.

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