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Can an Obesity Systems Map be an effective HAES® tool?

by Deb Lemire

As proponents of the Health At Every Size® model, it is often challenging to look beyond the hype and fear mongering that surround the “obesity epidemic.”(1) Our natural response may well be to automatically dismiss anything that bears the “obesity” label because we assume it will have no value for our HAES efforts. And often that is the case.

Several years ago I came across an “Obesity Systems Map” which seems to again be resurfacing on some listservs and blogs. Not being a researcher by training, but curious by nature, I launched a brief internet investigation to see what this map was all about.

A possible HAES® Tool?
A possible HAES® Tool?

The Obesity Systems Map was created by shiftN, a group of systems practitioners who, relying on state-of-the-art skills in systems thinking, futures methodologies and collaborative intelligence, bring clarity to complex social issues.(2) shiftN was engaged to create an Obesity Systems Map for a project led by Foresight, a UK Government ”think tank” on science and technology issues.(3)

The goal of Foresight’s project Tackling Obesities: Future Choices was “to produce a long-term vision of how we can deliver a sustainable response to obesity in the UK over the next 40 years.” Their project objectives were to:

  • Use the scientific evidence base from across a wide range of disciplines to identify the broad range of factors that influence obesity, looking beyond the obvious
  • Create a shared understanding of the relationships between key factors influencing levels of obesity and their relative importance
  • Build on this evidence to identify effective interventions
  • Analyze how future levels of obesity might change and the most effective future responses

At Foresight’s website you can download and read the 76-page report that expands on these objectives and the conclusions they reached, based on their research.

It is immediately clear that Foresight’s research goals and findings in the report are decidedly not HAES friendly. Even though they conclude that the issue of obesity is complex and multifactoral (not just that if you eat too much you get fat), there are the given assumptions underlying all conclusions that obesity is a problem for everyone; obesity is a disease that needs to be cured; obesity will cost beaucoup bucks as the trends continue; something must be done for the children’s sake, and so on.

I wonder, however, if there might not be a way that the Obesity Systems Map could be a useful HAES tool. First you have to rename it for what it really is: “The Energy Balance Systems Map.”

I think we can all agree that our bodies, regardless of shape, size, age, gender, race, etc. are continually looking to maintain an energy balance so they can function optimally (that’s why we feel hungry, for example). Our energy needs change all the time based on many different things, such as activity level, amount of sleep we’ve had, stress, age, and disease.

What this map shows us is that there are many different influences, both negative and positive, on that energy balance. Out of balance, we may not be as strong or healthy as we might want to be. An energy imbalance might result in a body being larger or smaller than would result from a more balanced relationship. Achieving a state of more balanced energy might result in a body that is healthier and stronger at whatever shape or size works best for that particular body.

Foresight’s initial goals when commissioning this Systems Map may have been to support their assumptions that obesity is a growing, costly and terrible problem, assumptions that are clear when looking at the project’s objectives.

But if you look closely, you will notice that “obesity” appears nowhere on this map, either as a contributing factor or as a direct result. It is only mentioned as having an impact based on our ‘perception’ of obesity as a disease.

I believe this Systems Map actually shows that maintaining the health of our populations needs to be addressed on multiple levels in our society; levels which range from agricultural and financial sustainability to education and issues of safety and violence. It illustrates that there are multiple factors that influence our energy balance and thereby our body sizes and shapes. And with all those many, many, many different factors, we humans can’t help but come in a variety pack!

And that is a HAES-friendly concept.



(1) The term “obesity epidemic” is put in quotations because its existence is challenged from a HAES point of view. The word obesity, once simply a medical term to define a particular body size, now holds a host of derogatory meanings and therefore should be considered “in quotes” throughout this commentary.

(2) shiftN was established in 1994 by a group of futures and systems practitioners formerly working with the Global Business Network. Since then shiftN has run dozens of projects helping clients gain a better understanding of complex issues they face and how those issues may evolve in the future.

(3) As the UK Government’s ‘think tank’ on science and technology issues, Foresight operates through projects that investigate the challenges and opportunities arising from emerging areas of science and technology or that address major issues for society where science and technology have an important role to play.

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