Survey: Obesity Ties Cancer as Top Health Threat

Most obese individuals recognize health risks, but only a third seek medical help

Americans take obesity as seriously as cancer and say it’s an even bigger health threat than heart disease, the nation’s leading killer, and yet most do not go beyond traditional diets or involve doctors in their largely unsuccessful personal struggles against the disease, according to a survey by the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS) and the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago.

The ASMBS/NORC Obesity Poll found that 81% of Americans consider obesity to be the most serious health problem facing the nation, tying cancer as the top issue, ahead of diabetes (72%), heart disease (72%), mental illness (65%), and HIV/AIDS (46%). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that, between 2011 and 2014, the prevalence of obesity was more than 36%, a number that has grown significantly in the last 10 years.

Nearly all of the respondents (94%) agreed that obesity increases the risk of an early death, even if no other health problems are present, according to the new poll. Despite the seriousness with which they take the threat, the majority of the respondents incorrectly perceived diet and exercise alone to be the most effective long-term weight loss methods, and one in three of those struggling with obesity reported that they had never spoken with a physician or health care professional about their weight. Only 12% of those with severe obesity, for whom weight-loss surgery may be an option, said a doctor had ever suggested they consider surgery.

“This survey reveals that Americans understand the risks of obesity better than ever but hold major misperceptions about the causes of the disease, the effectiveness of the different treatments, and the importance of involving the medical community in their care," said Raul J. Rosenthal, MD, President of the ASMBS. “I think obesity may be the only life-threatening disease where more than a third of the patients do not consult a doctor for treatment, and where the vast majority do not explore other treatment options that may yield better long-term success rates.”

The poll also found that approximately 60% of Americans are currently trying to lose weight, although almost everyone with obesity (94%) had tried before. More than half of those with obesity had tried at least five previous times, and one in five had made more than 20 attempts to lose weight during their lifetimes. Only 22% of obese Americans rated their health positively, and half reported being diagnosed with two or more chronic conditions.

Most respondents (78%) considered diet and exercise on one’s own to be the most effective method for long-term weight loss, saying that it’s even more effective than weight-loss surgery (60%) or prescription obesity drugs (25%).

The ASMBS/NORC survey also found that one in three of the respondents worried about gaining weight all or a good deal of the time, but that those with obesity were more than twice as likely to report being chronically worried (54%) than nonobese individuals (20%). Of those who worried about their weight, most were extremely or very concerned about the health consequences. In fact, it appeared that nearly all of the respondents (98%) knew about the increased risk that obesity poses for developing diabetes, and most (82%) knew about the increased risk for developing certain types of cancer.

The national survey included samples of African-Americans and Hispanics and was conducted between August 11 and September 21, 2016. The poll was conducted online as well as with landlines and cell phones.

Source: University of Chicago; November 1, 2016.