Many obese Americans say they face discrimination and stigma because of their weight, and it’s affecting both their working and social lives.
Making overweight or obese people feel bad about their bodies doesn’t do anything to motivate them to lose weight – actually, a new study finds it does just the opposite.
In a series of national studies published over the last five years, about 40% of the general population has experienced some type of weight stigma, whether it be weight-based teasing, unfair treatment, or discrimination.
“It is a significant issue. Individuals that struggle with obesity, particularly with extreme obesity face discrimination and bias daily. We see it in the workforce; we know patients, as their weight goes up, are less likely to get hired, less likely to be promoted within their job, and more likely to get fired versus their normal weight counterparts. And the really sad part is that they also face it many times when they reach out for healthcare,” said President and Chief Bariatric Surgeon at the Better Weigh Center in Corpus Christi Dr. Lloyd Stegemann.
People who felt discriminated against because of their weight were more likely to either become or stay obese.
“The first step is coming forward and saying I need some help getting this problem under control. Again taking the fault and the blame out of it, this is a disease process just like high blood pressure, heart disease and that type of problem,” said Dr. Stegemann.
Americans are heavier than ever before with 35% of men and 40% of women being considered obese. Texas has the 14th highest adult obesity rate in the nation.
“We actually have great treatments now for people who struggle with their weight. But unfortunately, many insurance companies won’t cover these treatments, and many people don’t want to come forward because they feel ashamed about their weight,” said Dr. Stegemann.
Research has already shown that stigmatizing overweight people leads to psychological factors that are likely to contribute to weight gain – things like depression or binge eating.
“As weight goes up, we see the decline in the quality of life, almost parallel to the weight. It affects every aspect of an individual’s life. The good news is that there are good treatments available, and for individuals, if they simply reach out for treatment, oftentimes, can get some help,” said Dr. Stegemann.
Obesity is a complex disorder involving an excessive amount of body fat. Obesity isn’t just a cosmetic concern. It increases your risk of diseases and health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Despite the increasing prevalence of obesity, it appears that incidences of weight discrimination are only becoming worse.
- Texas has the 14th highest adult obesity rate in the nation. Obesity rate is 33 percent in Texas.
- Americans are heavier than ever before, with 35% of men and 40% of women being considered obese.
- About 17% of children and adolescents are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Weight-based bullying is one of the most common forms of bullying in youth in the United States.
- Weight bias is widespread in society, occurring in employment, education, the media, and even in relationships with family members, parents and teachers.
- Obesity has been called the last socially acceptable form of prejudice, and persons with obesity are considered acceptable targets of stigma
- Weight-based stigmatization is a common experience, especially instances such as “others making negative assumptions” (for instance, expecting poorer performance due to one’s weight), “nasty comments from children,” “physical barriers and obstacles,” and, notably, “inappropriate comments from doctors.”
What is obesity?
Obesity is a condition that is associated with having an excess amount of body fat, defined by genetic and environmental factors that are difficult to control when dieting. Obesity is classified as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or greater.
How common is weight discrimination?
Given the social acceptability of negative attitudes toward individuals with obesity, it may not be surprising to learn that weight discrimination is common in the United States.
On average, a person’s chances of being discriminated against because of weight become higher as their body weight increases. In a study, 10 percent of overweight women reported weight discrimination, 20 percent of women with obesity reported weight discrimination and 45 percent of women with obesity reported weight discrimination.
Discrimination hurts health if someone perceives that they are experiencing weight discrimination, they are more likely to suffer daily stress and negative emotions than otherwise, which could cause their health to worsen over time.
How Prevalent Is Weight Stigma?
In a series of national studies published over the last five years, we typically see that about 40% of the general population reports that it has experienced some type of weight stigma—whether it be weight-based teasing, unfair treatment, or discrimination.
Weight discrimination is one of the most common forms of discrimination reported by American adults, especially among women.
Among youth who experience teasing, bullying, or other victimization at school, weight is one of the most common reasons.
Data show that, as obesity rates have risen over the past few decades, so have rates of weight-based discrimination.
Obesity usually results from a combination of causes and contributing factors, including:
- Genetics. Your genes may affect the amount of body fat you store, and where that fat is distributed. Genetics may also play a role in how efficiently your body converts food into energy and how your body burns calories during exercise.
- Family lifestyle. Obesity tends to run in families. If one or both of your parents are obese, your risk of being obese is increased. That’s not just because of genetics. Family members tend to share similar eating and activity habits.
- Inactivity. If you’re not very active, you don’t burn as many calories. With a sedentary lifestyle, you can easily take in more calories every day than you burn through exercise and routine daily activities. Having medical problems, such as arthritis, can lead to decreased activity, which contributes to weight gain.
- Unhealthy diet. A diet that’s high in calories, lacking in fruits and vegetables, full of fast food, and laden with high-calorie beverages and oversized portions contributes to weight gain.
- Medical problems. In some people, obesity can be traced to a medical cause, such as Prader-Willi syndrome, Cushing’s syndrome and other conditions. Medical problems, such as arthritis, also can lead to decreased activity, which may result in weight gain.
- Certain medications. Some medications can lead to weight gain if you don’t compensate through diet or activity. These medications include some antidepressants, anti-seizure medications, diabetes medications, antipsychotic medications, steroids and beta blockers.
- Social and economic issues. Research has linked social and economic factors to obesity. Avoiding obesity is difficult if you don’t have safe areas to exercise. Similarly, you may not have been taught healthy ways of cooking, or you may not have money to buy healthier foods. In addition, the people you spend time with may influence your weight — you’re more likely to become obese if you have obese friends or relatives.
- Age. Obesity can occur at any age, even in young children. But as you age, hormonal changes and a less active lifestyle increase your risk of obesity. In addition, the amount of muscle in your body tends to decrease with age. This lower muscle mass leads to a decrease in metabolism. These changes also reduce calorie needs, and can make it harder to keep off excess weight. If you don’t consciously control what you eat and become more physically active as you age, you’ll likely gain weight.
- Pregnancy. During pregnancy, a woman’s weight necessarily increases. Some women find this weight difficult to lose after the baby is born. This weight gain may contribute to the development of obesity in women.
- Quitting smoking. Quitting smoking is often associated with weight gain. And for some, it can lead to enough weight gain that the person becomes obese. In the long run, however, quitting smoking is still a greater benefit to your health than continuing to smoke.
- Lack of sleep. Not getting enough sleep or getting too much sleep can cause changes in hormones that increase your appetite. You may also crave foods high in calories and carbohydrates, which can contribute to weight gain.
Even if you have one or more of these risk factors, it doesn’t mean that you’re destined to become obese. You can counteract most risk factors through diet, physical activity and exercise, and behavior changes.
If you’re obese, you’re more likely to develop a number of potentially serious health problems, including:
- High triglycerides and low high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol
- Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Metabolic syndrome — a combination of high blood sugar, high blood pressure, high triglycerides and low HDL cholesterol
- Heart disease
- Cancer, including cancer of the uterus, cervix, endometrium, ovaries, breast, colon, rectum, esophagus, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, kidney and prostate
- Breathing disorders, including sleep apnea, a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts
- Gallbladder disease
- Gynecological problems, such as infertility and irregular periods
- Erectile dysfunction and sexual health issues
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition in which fat builds up in the liver and can cause inflammation or scarring
Quality of life
When you’re obese, your overall quality of life may be diminished. You may not be able to do things you used to do, such as participating in enjoyable activities. You may avoid public places. Obese people may even encounter discrimination.
Other weight-related issues that may affect your quality of life include:
- Sexual problems
- Shame and guilt
- Social isolation
- Lower work achievement
Whether you’re at risk of becoming obese, currently overweight or at a healthy weight, you can take steps to prevent unhealthy weight gain and related health problems. Not surprisingly, the steps to prevent weight gain are the same as the steps to lose weight: daily exercise, a healthy diet, and a long-term commitment to watch what you eat and drink.
- Exercise regularly. You need to get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week to prevent weight gain. Moderately intense physical activities include fast walking and swimming.
- Follow a healthy eating plan. Focus on low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Avoid saturated fat and limit sweets and alcohol. Eat three regular meals a day with limited snacking. You can still enjoy small amounts of high-fat, high-calorie foods as an infrequent treat. Just be sure to choose foods that promote a healthy weight and good health most of the time.
- Know and avoid the food traps that cause you to eat. Identify situations that trigger out-of-control eating. Try keeping a journal and write down what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, how you’re feeling and how hungry you are. After a while, you should see patterns emerge. You can plan ahead and develop strategies for handling these types of situations and stay in control of your eating behaviors.
- Monitor your weight regularly. People who weigh themselves at least once a week are more successful in keeping off excess pounds. Monitoring your weight can tell you whether your efforts are working and can help you detect small weight gains before they become big problems.
- Be consistent. Sticking to your healthy-weight plan during the week, on the weekends, and amidst vacation and holidays as much as possible increases your chances of long-term success.
What legal action can be taken for victims of weight discrimination?
Unfortunately, there are few legal options available for individuals who suffer weight discrimination. Currently, there are no federal laws that exist to prohibit discrimination based on weight.
With the exception of one state law (Michigan)
Reducing weight bias requires major shifts in societal attitudes, and national actions are needed to establish meaningful legislation to ensure that persons with obesity receive the equitable treatment they deserve.
If you are ready to take the next step, the Corpus Christi Medical Center- Bay Area Hospital has free monthly weight loss seminars to help you explore the options and get informed. To find out more, call 361-761-3643.