Obesity metaphors: How beliefs about the causes of obesity affect support for public policy

Colleen L. Barry, Victoria L. Brescoll, Kelly D. Brownell, Mark Schlesinger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

205 Scopus citations


Context: Relatively little is known about the factors shaping public attitudes toward obesity as a policy concern. This study examines whether individuals' beliefs about the causes of obesity affect their support for policies aimed at stemming obesity rates. This article identifies a unique role of metaphor-based beliefs, as distinct from conventional political attitudes, in explaining support for obesity policies. Methods: This article used the Yale Rudd Center Public Opinion on Obesity Survey, a nationally representative web sample surveyed from the Knowledge Networks panel in 2006/07 (N = 1,009). The study examines how respondents' demographic and health characteristics, political attitudes, and agreement with seven obesity metaphors affect support for sixteen policies to reduce obesity rates. Findings: Including obesity metaphors in regression models helps explain public support for policies to curb obesity beyond levels attributable solely to demographic, health, and political characteristics. The metaphors that people use to understand rising obesity rates are strong predictors of support for public policy, and their influence varies across different types of policy interventions. Conclusions: Over the last five years, the United States has begun to grapple with the implications of dramatically escalating rates of obesity. Individuals use metaphors to better understand increasing rates of obesity, and obesity metaphors are independent and powerful predictors of support for public policies to curb obesity. Metaphorical reasoning also offers a potential framework for using strategic issue framing to shift support for obesity policies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7-47
Number of pages41
JournalMilbank Quarterly
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Metaphor
  • Obesity
  • Public opinion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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