In the US, two-thirds of the population is overweight, with a third meeting the criteria for obesity. Obesity is linked to a range of serious health conditions from chronic back pain to heart disease. It is important that we understand all potential factors contributing to this epidemic.

Research into how our beliefs affect our behaviors bears important information for both our mental and physical health. Studies have linked fear of movement to increased disability in people with back pain and work cessation to feelings towards one's condition. Most recently, researchers began questioning whether beliefs about what causes obesity influence a person's body mass index (BMI).

It only makes sense that our beliefs about what causes a condition influence our risks of developing it; If our belief is inaccurate, we may have in such a way that promotes the condition, and if our belief is accurate, we are likely to avoid the right risk factors. If people think obesity is completely determined by genetics, for example, they are likely to become obese because they will be less inclined to eat a healthy diet or lead an active lifestyle.

Diet Versus Exercise?

Generally, diet and exercise are recognized by the medical community as the key components of obesity prevention and treatment. What is interesting about the recent study is that most of its participants throughout the US, Korea and France responded with one of these two components as what they viewed to be the main cause of obesity; BMIs differed significantly depending on whether participants saw diet or exercise as the more deciding factor.

When people are trying to lose weight, the general recommendation is to cut back 500 calories a day with a combination of reduced caloric intake and calorie burning through exercise. This seems to indicate that both are equally important to prevent excess weight, but the participants of the study who put more emphasis on diet as a cause of obesity had lower BMIs than those who embarked on exercise. Researchers found that the latter group tended to eat more. See more on the study at http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/06/05/0956797612473121 .

What conclusions can be drawn from this? Certainly not that exercise is less important than diet in maintaining a healthy weight – the study did not indicate that participants who embarked on exercise actually performed it. Sometimes that is the clue: It is more convenient (as in easier and less time-consuming) to eat smaller portions, or pick healthy food options, than it is to put in half an hour of exercise every day for 5 days a week, which is the general activity recommendation for adults. Consuming fewer calories leads to less weight gain. Exercise, which burns calories, builds muscle and keeps the cardiovascular system in good shape, is imperative to disease prevention. But obesity, which raises the risk for heart disease, chronic pain and diabetes substantively, seems to be best prevented by consuming fewer calories.

While it is important to know that exercise is an essential component of healthy living, it seems that an understanding of the role of healthy diet in weight management is more important for preventing obesity in the general population. For people who lead sedentary lifestyles and eat a poor diet, suggesting changes to both their eating and activity habits at once may seem overwhelming. Public health campaigns should begin beginning focusing more on diet in an effort to effect immediate changes on obesity rates.