Playing the Fat Shame Game in Medicine: It Needs to Stop

Roni K. Devlin, MD, MBS


October 13, 2022

I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon's knife or the chemist's drug.

Upon finishing medical school, many of us recited this passage from a modernized version of the Hippocratic Oath. Though there has been controversy regarding the current relevancy of this oath, it can still serve as a reminder of the promises we made on behalf of our patients: to treat them ethically, with empathy and respect, and without pretension. Though I hadn't thought about the Hippocratic Oath in ages, it came to mind recently after I read an article about weight trends in adults during the COVID pandemic.

No surprise — we gained weight during the initial surge at a rate of roughly a pound and a half per month following the initial shelter-in-place period. For some of us, that trend in weight gain worsened as the pandemic persisted. A survey conducted in February 2021 suggested that over 40% of adults who experienced undesired weight changes since the start of the pandemic gained an average of 29 pounds (significantly more than the typical gain of 15 pounds, often referred to as the "Quarantine 15" or "COVID-15").

Updated data, obtained via a review of electronic health records for over 15 million patients, shows that 39% of patients gained weight during the pandemic (10% of them gained more than 12.5 pounds, while 2% gained over 27.5 pounds). Though these recent numbers may be lower than previously reported, they still aren't reassuring. And as our bodies have changed, so has the concern for worsening weight stigma (bias against individuals because of their body size).

Research has already confirmed that sizeism has a negative impact on both a patient's physical health and their psychological well-being, and as medical providers, we're part of the problem. We cause distress in our patients through disrespectful treatment and medical fat shaming, which can lead to cycles of disordered eating, reduced physical activity, and more weight gain. We discriminate based on weight, causing our patients to delay healthcare visits and other provider interactions, resulting in increased risks for morbidity and even mortality. We make assumptions that a patient's presenting complaints are due to their weight rather than other causes, resulting in missed diagnoses. And we recommend different treatments for obese patients with the same condition as nonobese patients simply because of their weight.

One study has suggested that over 40% of adults in the US have suffered from weight stigma, and physicians and coworkers are listed as some of the most common sources. Another study suggests that nearly 70% of overweight or obese patients report feeling stigmatized by physicians, whether through expressed biases or purposeful avoidance (patients have previously reported that their providers addressed weight loss in fewer than 20% of their examinations).

As healthcare providers, we need to do better. We should all be willing to consider our own biases about body size, and there are self-assessments to help with this, including the Implicit Associations Test: Weight Bias. By becoming more self-aware, hopefully we can change the doctor-patient conversation about weight management.

Studies have shown that meaningful conversations with physicians can have a significant impact on patients' attempts to change behaviors related to weight. Yet, many medical providers are not trained in how to counsel patients on nutrition, weight loss, and physical activity (if we bring it up at all). We need to better educate ourselves about weight science and treatments.

In the meantime, we can work on how we interact with our patients:

  • Make sure that your practice space is accommodating and nondiscriminatory, with appropriately sized furniture in the waiting and exam rooms, large blood pressure cuffs and gowns, and size-inclusive reading materials.

  • Ensure that your workplace has an antiharassment policy that includes sizeism.

  • Be an ally and speak up against weight discrimination.

  • Educate your office staff about weight stigma and ensure that they avoid commenting on the weight or body size of others (being recognized only for losing weight isn't a compliment, and sharing "fat jokes" isn't funny).

  • Remember that a person's body size tells you nothing about their health behaviors. Stop assuming that larger body sizes are related to laziness, overeating, or a lack of motivation.

  • Ask your overweight or obese patients if they are willing to talk about their weight before jumping into the topic.

  • Practice empathetic and motivational interviewing (patients are more likely to report changing their exercise routine and attempting to lose weight with these techniques).

  • Be mindful of your word choices; for example, it can be more helpful to focus on comorbidities (such as high blood pressure or prediabetes) rather than body weight, nutrition rather than dieting, and physical activity rather than specific exercises.

Regardless of how you feel about reciting the Hippocratic Oath, our patients, no matter their body size, deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, as others have said in more eloquent ways than I. Let's stop playing the fat shame game and help fight weight bias in medicine.

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About Dr Roni Devlin
Roni K. Devlin, MD, MBS, is an infectious diseases physician currently residing in the Midwest. She is the author of several scholarly papers and two books on influenza. With a longstanding interest in reading and writing beyond the world of medicine, she has also owned an independent bookstore, founded a literary nonprofit, and published articles and book reviews for various online and print publications. You can reach her via LinkedIn.


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