A growing body of research demonstrates that obesity is highly heritable and severe childhood obesity is largely the result of genetic risk factors interacting with environmental factors that promote obesity. However, public opinion generally holds that obesity results primarily from poor choices and a failure of personal or parental discipline. The present research had a goal of documenting public perceptions about the causes of severe obesity in young children.


In April 2019, we surveyed a total of 4,018 adults in the U.S., U.K., France, and Italy. Google Consumer Surveys collected representative online samples in these four countries. Each respondent completed only one of two survey questions asking what they believe is the primary cause of severe obesity when it occurs in young children. Respondents could choose between poor diet and exercise habits, poor parenting, excessive marketing of junk food, and genetics and physiology.


In the U.K., U.S., and France, the largest number of respondents identified poor habits as the primary cause of severe obesity in young children. The highest percentage of respondents in the U.K. (56%) made this choice. In Italy, that number was 33%. The most common response in Italy was excessive marketing of junk food (35%). The least common response was genetics and physiology (6-13% of respondents).


Public opinion lends substantial support to the discredited idea that severe childhood obesity is primarily a simple matter of bad dietary and physical activity habits. Conversely, the public seems mostly unaware that genetics and physiology are important factors.