Public Health Nutrition

HOT TOPIC – Overweight and Obesity

Free will and the obesity epidemic

David A Levitskya1a2 c1 and Carly R Pacanowskia1

a1 Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA

a2 Department of Psychology, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA


The increase in body weight in the USA over the past several decades is now commonly referred to as the ‘obesity epidemic’. An empirical analysis of the literature suggests that the increased weight can be accounted for by an increase in food intake. The solution to the obesity epidemic, therefore, must centre on a reduction in food consumption, a position well accepted by the American population who think that they, as individuals, are responsible for their adiposity by holding the belief that the decision as to what and how much to eat is determined by their own free will. The evidence demonstrates, however, that this is not true. Variables such as portion size, variety of foods offered, fat content of the diet, the number of people eating, the location where eating occurs and even watching food advertisements act as ‘food primes’ causing individuals to increase their energy intake. Despite the plethora of diets, weight-loss clubs, drugs and mechanical devices available to facilitate weight loss, once treatment is terminated and people return to the ‘free’ environment, their weight returns to pre-treatment levels. Only when individuals are protected from environmental variables by gastric surgery or limited to consume only portion-controlled meals can they successfully maintain a reduced weight. Combining the technique of daily weight monitoring with accepting that our eating behaviour is not determined totally by our free choice, we may be able to curb the obesity epidemic.

(Received January 10 2011)

(Accepted July 21 2011)

(Online publication September 19 2011)


c1 Corresponding author: Email