May 14, 2011

The six reasons why overweight is a wicked problem

No quick fixes and simple solutions. That is the case with the current overweight and obesity epidemic. You can read this important message in the recently published book 'Tegenwicht. Feiten en fabels over overgewicht', written by Jaap Seidell and Jutka Halbertstadt. The translation of this Dutch title would be something like 'Counterweight. Facts and myths about overweight'.

I really liked reading this book, because it describes in easy-to-read and understandable language the current state of the scientific knowledge on overweight and obesity. What struck me most was that science has not yet come that far in understanding how various factors interact in creating the overweight problem and providing effective solutions. A key reason for that, Seidell argues, is that overweight is a wicked problem. This term was first mentioned in relation to the highly complex problems of social planning, but it can also be applied to overweight and obesity.

Basically, there are six reasons why overweight is a wicked problem:

Reason 1: You know what the problem is, when you have the solution. Since it is hard to define what exactly the problem is, it is difficult to find a solution. This definitely applies to overweight. For example, experts often disagree what the major causes are of overweight: lack of physical activity or overeating? Bad genes or bad eating habits?

Reason 2: The solution process does not have a clear end-point. As Seidell wonders; it is not exactly clear what the purpose is of preventing overweight: halting the rising trends or reducing the number of people with overweight to zero?

Reason 3: Solutions are not right or wrong. All involved stakeholders (such as food companies, authorities, consumers, health professionals) have an opinion about the problem and often disagree. For example, last week we had the No Diet Day (or 'Anti-Diet-day' in the Netherlands). Although the day aims at body weight acceptance, it led to debates about the usefulness of particular diets and the risks of overweight

Reason 4: Each wicked problem is unique and new. The involved actors and concrete situations are different. The causes and potential solutions are similarly not the same for different groups of overweight individuals.

Reason 5:  There is no room to experiment. It is impossible to check beforehand whether a particular solution will be effective. Essentially, it is often a matter of critically informed trial and error.

Reason 6: There is no clear set of solutions and there can be many solutions or only one. Solutions are hard to find. As a result, Seidell argues that the overweight and obesity problem requires a holistic solution. For example, schools, food industry, health authorities and consumers should work together in exploring solutions that seem promising. After all, there is a lot at stake: overweight is not just a medical problem, but also a social one. 

Trish Groves likewise argues in the British Medical Journal that obesity seems to be the classic example of a wicked problem. Consequently, we need more innovative and collaborative approaches. I completely agree. Acknowledging that overweight is a wicked problem might help getting a more realistic overview of the problem instead of over-simplistic and one-sided analyses and claims for solutions. It also shows that as researchers we should look across the boundaries of traditional research fields and become more creative in contributing to the search for solutions.


  1. very nice post thanks i my self run a blog on obesity which is and I would really appreciate if you share more information on weight gain.

  2. Hi Ellen,

    What a nice post and creative thinking. It seems that thinking "inside the box" is another factor that can prevent success in weight loss regimes.

    Losing weight is not only counting calories. Techniques are not strategies and people need strategies.

    Obese and overweight people are often desperate, they are just unable to cry out for help. I know I was, at least.

    Curiously, as an obese person, I am always dieting every day. 98% of the time. And then those 2% of time I break my resolve.

    Even though I was obese, I was on a diet. Isn't that frustrating, or what?

    Anyhow, I'm now successfully eating less and exercising ... and as an obese person that is of course a major step forward.

    Found you through the Carnival of Weight Loss and I love what I read here!

    an elliptical dieter

  3. It’s a great post, you really are a good writer! I’m so glad someone like you have the time, efforts and dedication writing, for this kind of article… Helpful, And Useful.. Very nice post!


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