Puhl emphasized that she isn't saying people shouldn't try to control their weight. Scores of studies have shown that excess weight contributes to a wide range of diseases, and physical fitness is one of our best bets for fighting everything from heart attacks to aging. But let's face it, if diets worked, we would all be skinny. Many uncontrollable factors contribute to obesity, like genetics and some diseases, yet we still blame the individual.
The heart of the problem, Puhl said, is that obesity brings social stigmatism and stereotyping, and that can lead to depression, discrimination and binge eating, so the problem just gets worse.
But why are we failing so miserably at keeping our weight under control?
"We live in a very toxic food environment," Puhl said. "We make it very easy for people to be unhealthy. Unhealthy foods, or junk foods, are accessible, cheap and engineered to taste very, very good. Healthy foods, like produce, are not as accessible, and are more expensive."
And it's everywhere. A friend recently offered me one of those cookies sold by Girl Scouts in our community. The label on the box said one cookie has four grams of fat. And nobody eats just one Girl Scout cookie. It tastes great, it's cheap and it's for a worthy cause. But that little angel standing at your door is offering you a one-way ticket to obesity.
So grab a handful, and if you get fat, it's your fault, right?
"We take this personal responsibility approach and say well, just exercise more and eat less, but it's much more complicated than that," Puhl said. "If it were that easy, we wouldn't have this epidemic that we have now."
So people who are overweight, regardless of the cause, are blamed for their excesses and it's OK to discriminate against them, at least according to federal law and cultural norms.
Here are some of the findings in Puhl's study:
Puhl (whose BMI is in the normal range) thinks this is a very big deal. Our culture, she said, sanctions biases against people who are even a little overweight. We blame them for a condition that may result from their genes, or a health problem, and that condemnation in many cases backfires.
And the solution isn't as simple as eat less, exercise more.
Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.