Dropping extra pounds takes more than willpower for people who are obese. (Alan Cleaver/Flickr)

With a new year comes the annual resolutions to lose extra pounds. If you’ve taken that pledge, I wish you good luck! But chances are you will be one of the 92 percent who fail to reach their new year’s goals.  Society tends to blame this failure on a lack of willpower – people don’t lose weight simply because they’re too lazy. But the truth is far more complicated. The only consistently successful weight-loss method for morbidly obese people (those with a body mass index over 40) has been bariatric surgery. Without surgery, morbid obesity is extremely difficult to cure – fewer than 5 percent ever overcome it on their own.

The global weight-loss market is worth an estimated $586.3 billion.  And yet, obesity continues to rise at a shockingly rapid pace. More than 1.4 billion adults are overweight, and more than half of the global population could fall into that category by 2030, according to a projection by the McKinsey Global Institute. The spread of this debilitating disease wasn’t caused by a decline in global willpower, but rather the rise of sedentary lifestyles due to work and the sugar-laden western diet. Obesity has now surpassed hunger as the world’s biggest health crisis.  Attributing the cure to “personal responsibility” is inaccurate and ineffective.

Nobody has found a consistent way for most obesity sufferers to lose their extra weight and keep it off long-term without surgery, leaving the world with an obesity bill that costs $2 trillion a year. Obesity now accounts for one in five deaths of Americans between 40 and 85 years old. The miserable success rate in losing weight and the pricey consequences should be spurring governments into action. There has been some effort on that front: The White House has pushed to make school lunches more healthful and New York City tried to ban excessively sugary drinks (that law was struck down in court). But more systemic reforms are necessary to combat this global epidemic. As worldwide sales of packaged foods have soared to a massive $2.4 trillion in 2014, society has adopted a lenient approach to the level of sugar in our food. But an increasing number of researchers have warned of sugar’s addictive properties, even comparing it to cocaine. Sugar added to processed foods now makes up 13 percent of American adults’ daily caloric intake, according to government data. It should be less than 5 percent, according to proposed guidelines from the World Health Organization. Certainly, we would expect government intervention if our supermarkets filled their shelves with products pumped with cocaine. Yet, we seem to be unfazed by the fact that sugar has become nearly impossible to avoid in the western diet, potentially passing obesity down through generations and causing children to be raised as sugar addicts.

If society is going to successfully end the obesity epidemic, politicians and the public must end the “personal responsibility” rhetoric.  The stigma ultimately exacerbates the problem. My aunt, who died of complications from obesity a few years ago, might still be with us today if society was more tolerant and aware of the realities obesity sufferers face. The shaming and mocking she experienced from some hospital staff and others stopped her from getting the help she needed to lose weight.

When I wrote a piece recently arguing that morbid obesity is often a disability — irrelevant of the cause —  many people responded with ridicule and disgust. It is a fact that morbid obesity can lead to immobility that cannot be cured without medical intervention. People benefiting from disability status because of other “self-inflicted” conditions such as lung cancer from smoking or paraplegia from a speed-related car crash do not face the same scrutiny.  The comments section of my piece was filled with dismissive remarks like “Fat people did it to themselves!” and “They should get up off their fat backsides and just work out!” On the same day my piece published in the Guardian, the news site also ran a personal essay by a woman afflicted with anorexia. The author’s background was similar to mine – a seemingly hard-working post-graduate journalist with an eating disorder who was trying to make her way in the world. But the tone of the public comments on her piece were very different, full of empathy and willingness to accept the condition as a disease not of her own making. For example, commenters wrote “Good luck … I hope your recovery becomes easier” and “Can imagine a little better now the level of helplessness that this disease creates.”

Naomi Wolf wrote in “The Beauty Myth” that cultural fixation on thinness, which leads to anorexia, is based in society’s obsession with female obedience. Obesity, on the other hand, is not obedient to that social norm, making women uncomfortably “obvious” for some. This might explain the generally more aggressive reaction to that condition and to my article.

When it comes to obesity, it’s convenient to place the responsibility on individuals. But the real solutions are found in how our society operates. Better regulation of our food sources and education of children about healthy lifestyles must be part of the answer. Leaving it up to people to deal with in later life simply isn’t working. Going to the gym and munching on celery sticks instead of chocolate certainly should be encouraged. But history has shown us that these resolutions don’t provide a long-term fix for the sugar-addicted society we live in. So this year, my new year’s resolution is to support policies and vote for leaders that reduce sugar in our food and combat obesity systemically, in addition to rejecting foods with high added-sugar content. If others do the same, we can really turn the tide on obesity and create a healthier global society that’s capable of thriving, instead of just getting sicker.

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Morbid obesity is a disability. Employers should start treating it that way.

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