Many healthcare professionals’ attitudes about obesity have little scientific backing. Although research does show a correlation between having obesity and certain health risk factors, not everyone with obesity is unhealthy. In fact, one 2015 study suggested that many adults with obesity are healthy and that 2–50% are “metabolically normal,” indicating a low risk of cardiovascular and other conditions. Prioritizing weight above all other health issues can damage the mental and physical health of people deemed to have obesity. It may even contribute to rising rates of obesity.
Keep reading to learn more about obesity discrimination in healthcare, including information about why it exists, some statistics, and the negative effects of this stigma. A 2016 study involving nurse practitioners found that healthcare professionals made sweeping judgments about heavier patients. Nurses reported that overweight people or those with obesity were not as good or successful as people carrying less weight, were unfit for marriage, and were messy, dirty, and unhealthy.
One 2015 paper suggested that healthcare professionals report viewing people with overweight or obesity as lazy, as weak-willed, or as lacking self-control. Rather than treating obesity as a health condition, they may treat it as a personality trait, judging a person as less compliant and more unhygienic based on their weight. According to the 2015 paper above, these biases may cause people with overweight or obesity to report lower quality care. Healthcare professionals may offer a less patient-centered approach and make treatment recommendations based on stereotypes, not the person’s actual needs.
However, weight is just one of many factors affecting health. Also, the link between weight and health does not run in one direction. A person’s health can affect their weight, just as their weight can affect their health. Beliefs about people who carry excess weight often ignore this fact. Concerns about an “obesity epidemic” have inspired many healthcare professionals to discuss weight concerns with their patients.
Weight bias is becoming more common in healthcare. One 2016 paper suggested that weight bias increased by 66% during the previous decade. Doctors may also overestimate the extent to which a person can control their weight, choosing to attribute weight to a lack of discipline rather than a complex interaction between genes, the environment, stress, overall health, and personal choices.
A 2014 study looked at weight gain among women and the messages they received from people they trusted about their weight. Women with a higher level of weight concern were more likely to gain weight when they heard shaming or judgmental comments, while weight acceptance was associated with less weight gain and sometimes with weight loss. A 2016 paper highlighted studies showing widespread bias and discrimination. Those studies reported the following statistics: Some healthcare professionals may believe that having frequent shaming discussions about weight may encourage weight loss. The data suggest otherwise. Shame is stressful, and it may undermine weight loss or even cause a person to gain weight.
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