Search for psychological factors behind regional obesity rates

Published 13 June 2012

A researcher at the University of New England is investigating psychological factors that may be contributing to the current epidemic of obesity throughout Australia.

A major aim of the study is to identify factors that affect people living in country areas rather than in cities.

The researcher, Michelle Owens, said that gaining an understanding of such factors would be an important step towards establishing clinical programs to treat obesity in rural areas.

“Most obesity research has focused on medical and environmental factors rather than psychological factors,” she said. “But obesity is often associated with psychosocial experiences – including discrimination, stigmatisation, reduced opportunities for employment, and poor self-esteem – that have a strong relationship to depression. While the relationship between obesity and depression is complicated, there are generally higher rates of depression in people with obesity.

“And, while obesity research has largely focused on the major cities, reports indicate that there are higher rates of obesity in rural than in urban populations.”

Ms Owens’s study is one of the first to investigate the possibility of specific links between geographic locations and psychological factors contributing to obesity. “If such links are identified,” she said, “this may assist in tailoring specific weight-reduction programs to meet the unique psychological needs of rural populations.” The project is part of her Master of Clinical Psychology degree program at UNE.

In order to collect the data she needs, she is conducting an online survey of people over the age of 18, and analysing the responses in relation to the participants’ weight, psychological factors, and where they live. In her analysis she is using the Australian Standard Geographical Classification of “remoteness”, which divides Australia into five zones: “major city”, “inner regional”, “outer regional”, “remote”, and “very remote” areas. (Details of this classification are at: http://www.doctorconnect.gov.au/internet/otd/Publishing.nsf/Content/locator.)

“Any information or personal details gathered in the course of this study will remain completely confidential,” Ms Owens said, “and no individual will be identified by name in any publication of the results.”

While she is interested in hearing from people in all five zones, she is particularly keen to receive responses from people living in “remote” and “very remote” zones. The online survey, which takes about 30 minutes to complete, and an information sheet for participants, can be found at http://tinyurl.com/7rtg5x6.

Ms Owens would like, eventually, to work as a clinical psychologist in a rural or regional area. “A psychologist’s consulting room isn’t the first place that people with an obesity problem tend to go to,” she said. “But I’m hoping that my study could contribute to a change in that.”