Americans Don’t Think Diet Causes Disease

woman looking through doughnut

I’ve been in several frustrating conversations recently about the role of food in preventing and fighting disease, including one in which my boyfriend called it unfair and “offensive” to emphasize individualizing factors like diet. One of his arguments was that everybody knows poor diet causes disease, but so do genes, environment, etc., and emphasizing nutrition runs the risk of blaming the ill. It’s an argument I’d be sympathetic to — if I thought everybody did know this. But I believe we’ve actually emphasized other disease risk factors at the expense of nutrition for so long that the average American knows no such thing — and a new poll from The Associated Press backs me up.

Part of last week’s Associated Press-NORC poll on obesity in the United States,  researchers found that the majority of Americans don’t believe being overweight or eating poorly increases your risk of developing cancers, arthritis or fertility problems.

“People are often shocked to hear how far-reaching the effects of obesity are,” Jennifer Dimitriou, a bariatric dietitian at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center, told AP.

While most people recognize some link between obesity and disease — only a quarter of those polled think it’s possible to be very overweight and still healthy — they get fuzzy on the specifics.

Only 7 percent of people surveyed mentioned cancer, although doctors long have known that fat increases the risk of developing cancers of the colon, breast, prostate, uterus and certain other sites. Plus, being overweight can make it harder to spot tumors early and to treat them.

When asked to name “the most serious health impacts of being overweight or obese,” 78% named diabetes and 70% said heart disease or heart attacks. But only 21% cited high blood pressure and only 10% cited stroke as consequences of obesity, and some common conditions (such as infertility) affected by extra weight received no mention. The most common answers after diabetes and heart disease were:

  • High blood pressure (21%)
  • Arthritis/joint problems (15%)
  • Depression/stress/anxiety (14%)
  • High cholesterol (11%)
  • Stroke (10%)
  • Death/dying young (8%)
  • Cancer (7%)
  • Mobility problems (5%)
  • Lung/respiratory problems (5%)
  • Kidney problems (1%)
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