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Weight stigma: As harmful as obesity itself?

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Weight Stigma: Its Effects on Health and Ways to Combat It

According to a recent article published in BioMed Central, weight stigma refers to "social rejection and devaluation that accrues to those who do not comply with prevailing social norms of adequate body weight and shape." This means that weight stigma is a form of discrimination based on a person's body weight.

The article's authors claim that weight stigma can have negative effects on a person's health, such as increasing cortisol levels, which can lead to poor metabolic health and increased weight gain. Additionally, people with higher body weight may cope with weight stigma by engaging in unhealthy behaviors, such as increasing alcohol and substance use, overeating to manage negative emotions, and avoiding health care settings or social encounters. These negative health outcomes are a result of what the authors refer to as chronic social stress, and studies have shown that weight discrimination can increase the risk of death by 60%, even when controlling for body mass index (BMI).

How to Combat Weight Stigma

To combat weight stigma, the first step is to acknowledge its existence. We cannot address something if we do not first acknowledge it.

Another way to address weight stigma is by changing the way we think and speak about people who have excess weight. One crucial way to do this is by removing the word "obese" from our vocabulary. When referring to someone who has excess weight, we should aim to identify them as a person with a disease, rather than defining them by the disease they have. For example, we should use the phrase "person with obesity" instead of "obese person." This way of speaking is known as using person-first language.

Combatting weight stigma in healthcare: Resources and recommendations

Weight stigma is a pervasive problem in healthcare settings, leading to negative health outcomes for individuals with overweight or obesity. Clinicians can take steps to address weight stigma, including acknowledging its existence and using person-first language in their communication with patients. Providing individualized treatment options and avoiding assumptions about patients' eating behaviors and physical activity levels is also important.

Patients with obesity can seek support from organizations such as the Obesity Action Coalition, which offers education, advocacy, and support for individuals with obesity. The Obesity Medicine Association has a search tool for finding a clinician board-certified in obesity medicine in a specific area. For those interested in bariatric surgery, the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery provides information about surgical options for severe obesity or for those with milder obesity and other medical complications.


Weight stigma is a significant problem affecting millions of people worldwide. It is a form of discrimination that can cause significant harm to a person's health and well-being. However, there are ways to combat weight stigma and promote a more inclusive and compassionate healthcare system.

By acknowledging the negative effects of weight stigma and using person-first language, healthcare providers can provide more individualized and compassionate care to patients with overweight or obesity. Patients can seek support from various resources and organizations to help cope with weight stigma and improve their health outcomes.

It is time to recognize the complexity of obesity and its causes and shift away from harmful stigmatizing attitudes and beliefs. By working together, we can create a more inclusive and supportive society for all individuals, regardless of their body weight.

By taking steps to combat weight stigma and providing compassionate and individualized care, healthcare providers can help improve the health outcomes of patients with overweight or obesity.

Caroline Buckee

Caroline Flannigan is an epidemiologist. She is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and is the Associate Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics.

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