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When it comes to body weight, every individual is different. People come in all shapes and sizes, for all kinds of reasons.

Although it’s common to stereotype overweight or obese people as unhealthy, and thin or “average-weight” people as “automatically” healthy, the experts are quick to point out that body weight alone is not an indicator of good health.

“People tend to assume that if you are overweight you are not fit,” says Tanya Berry, associate professor at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation. “This is not necessarily true. It is also true that some thin people eat fast food and are inactive. We need to avoid stereotyping on the basis of body weight.”

Healthy Body Weight
A healthy body weight is just one component of good health.

Even though an individual’s BMI (body mass index) may indicate they are overweight or obese, a variety of other factors need to be considered to determine their overall health. These factors include the person’s diet and eating habits, mental health, physical activity levels, genetics and other risk factors for chronic diseases.

The clinical definition of obesity is a BMI of 30 or higher. The BMI is the body’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of the body’s height in meters. For adults, a body mass index of 25 or more is considered "overweight" and a BMI of 30 or more is considered "obese.”

How to Avoid Stereotyping
To avoid stereotyping, discrimination or personal biases, it’s vital to understand that the causes of overweight and obesity are very complex.  For example, some obese people may be facing genetic, environmental, psychological and/or social factors that are beyond their control or that may reduce their ability to achieve a healthy weight.

Some people who are fit and healthy may also happen to be overweight. They may have a genetic predisposition to carry some extra pounds and are able to do so without incurring health risks. Individuals do not always fit into neat and tidy categories such as those used in population health tables or metrics.

People who are overweight or obese are often judged as “not taking responsibility for themselves, being lazy or stupid and so forth,” says Dr. Arya Sharma, a professor of medicine at the University of Alberta. Dr. Sharma is also the scientific director for the Canadian Obesity Network and holds a Chair in Cardiovascular Obesity Research and Management at the University of Alberta.

“It is socially acceptable to criticize people because of their weight, whereas we no longer generally accept such comments about a person’s race, gender or religion. Even suffering from depression is more okay than being fat.”

A video produced by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity (see “Learn More” at the end of this article) illustrates this type of prejudice. It features a young woman who is overweight. Her classmates accuse her of eating a whole apple pie for breakfast and of having various undesirable habits and attitudes. They think she is causing her own weight problems and therefore deserves the abuse they hand out.

But, in fact, the young woman eats fruit and toast for breakfast, walks her dog every day, copes positively with “fat jokes” at school and generally demonstrates good physical and mental health.

Dr. Sharma notes that the tendency to “blame the victim” is not only morally wrong but also adds to the challenges faced by overweight or obese people. For example, it is easy to tell people to eat an apple instead of French fries. However, the poor and marginalized, or children whose parents have certain kinds of eating habits, may not be able to make such choices.

There are many, many factors involved in the complex issue of obesity.  Here are just a few:

  • the high number and prevalence of sedentary jobs in our technologically advanced society;
  • injuries and disabilities that may prevent people from being active;
  • medications that a person is required to take (which may limit their physical activity); and/or
  • the fact that many people lack the knowledge and/or time that would assist them in working towards a healthy weight.

Barriers and Bias
“Anti-fat” prejudice or stereotyping has direct implications for the health of those struggling with excess weight, suggests Dr. Sharma.  “Such prejudice does not motivate a person to lose weight,” he says. “It has exactly the opposite effect.”

Sharma suggests that people who experience such prejudices or stereotyping  face increased likelihood of difficulties such as depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, maladaptive eating behaviours and avoidance of physical activity.

Research has also shown that “weight bias” regularly occurs in the workplace. This can lead to job difficulties, adding to the list of barriers or prejudices faced by overweight or obese people. This job-related issue comes up for discussion on Dr. Sharma’s blog, with one participant saying he or she would not hire a person who is overweight. Dr. Sharma’s retort: “In our society, who would actually choose to be fat?”

Practitioners Should Avoid Bias
Sometimes, the very people who are in the best position to assist an overweight or obese person are themselves guilty of conscious or unconscious discrimination or biases. For instance, the young overweight woman in the video described above felt that her teacher’s words and actions were not helping her to counteract her classmates’ taunts and negative assumptions.

Research suggests that health researchers and medical practitioners can also have biases against obese people and convey those attitudes through their body language and in other ways. An obese person who senses bias among health practitioners might hesitate to seek preventive health-care services. The result can be a higher risk of medical problems because of a lack of early detection or diagnosis.

Looking Ahead
“Weight loss can be a red herring,” Berry says. “Someone can say he needs to lose 20 pounds, but why? Does he have a good quality of life? Is he healthy? We need to stop automatically reacting to people on the basis of their appearance and stop blaming the individual who may be struggling with genetic or lifestyle issues, such as a sedentary job. Thin people have health issues too.”

“It will take time to rebuild our cities, force people to abandon their cars, regulate our food chain, focus on calories and change our culture of over-consumption and sedentariness,” Dr. Sharma says. “In the meantime, we need to avoid asking people who are struggling with weight issues to ‘just fix it.’”

Learn More
Dr. Arya Sharma
Answers to frequently asked questions about obesity.

Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

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