A doctor's open apology to those fighting overweight and obesity

All too often the medical community 'fat-shames' patients trying to lose weight, when in fact obesity and overweight are complicated medical issues.

By J. David Prologo Published on Sep 08, 2020.
Doctors have told people who are overweight to exercise more and eat less, when in fact their overweight may be due to genetic or other factors that exercise won't change. UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, CC BY-SA

Obesity has emerged as a significant risk factor for poor outcomes in patients infected with COVID-19. Based on how doctors and others in health care have previously treated patients with obesity or overweight conditions, my guess is that many will respond by declaring: “Well, it’s their own fault for being overweight!”

In the spirit of recognizing that people who struggle with weight loss include our family and friends, let me propose a different sentiment.

To those who we have shamed for having excess body weight and/or failing diets: “You were right, and we are sorry. After giving you undoable tasks, we ridiculed you. When you tried to tell us, we labeled you as weak and crazy. Because we didn’t understand what you were experiencing, we looked down on you. We had never felt it ourselves. We did not know. And for that, we apologize.”

A woman and a nutritionist.
A nutritionist talks with a patient at an obesity clinic in Mulhouse, France. BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

‘Fat shaming’ doesn’t work

This is just one version of the apology we owe our fellow human beings whom we told to lose weight using diet and exercise. Then, when it didn’t work, we blamed them for our treatment plan failures and smothered their feedback with prejudice and persecution.

As a physician and researcher, I have worked in this space for many years. I have witnessed firsthand the life-altering power of preexisting ideas, judgments and stereotypes. I have seen how unfounded, negative ideas are woven through virtually every interaction that those struggling with weight loss endure when seeking help.

And there are tens of millions of them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies more than 70% of U.S. adults as overweight, and more than 40% as obese. Those numbers continue to climb, and even when some manage to lose weight, they almost always gain it back over time.

Rash judgments

To illustrate, imagine that I am your doctor. You have a body rash (which represents the condition of being overweight or obese), and you make an appointment with me to discuss a treatment plan.

During your visit, my office staff uses stigmatizing language and nonverbal signals that make it clear we are annoyed at the idea of dealing with another rash person. We invoke a set of assumptions that dictate the tone of our relationship, including the notions that you are lazy or ignorant or both. You will sense my disgust, which will make you uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, health care providers commonly treat patients who struggle with weight loss by assigning stereotypes, snap judgments and ingrained negative attributes – including laziness, noncompliance, weakness and dishonesty.

After this uncomfortable exchange, I will prescribe a treatment program for your rash and explain that it’s quite straightforward and easy to use. I will point you to several resources with pictures of smiling people with beautiful skin who never had a rash to emphasize how wonderful your outcome will be. “It’s just a matter of sticking to it,” I will say.

Back at home, you are excited to start treatment. However, you quickly realize that putting on the cream is unbearable. It burns; your arms and legs feel like they’re on fire shortly after you apply the treatment. You shower and wash off the cream.

A dismal conversation

After a few days, you try again. Same result. Your body will not accept the cream without intolerable burning and itching. You return to my office, and we have the following conversation:

You: Doctor, I cannot stick to this plan. My body cannot tolerate the cream.

Me: This is exactly why doctors do not want to deal with rash people. I’m giving you the treatment and you won’t stick to it. I put the cream on myself every morning without an issue.

You: But you don’t have a rash! Putting this cream on when you have a rash is different than putting it on clear skin. I do want to get rid of my rash, but I cannot tolerate this cream.

Me: If you don’t want to follow the treatment, that’s up to you. But it’s not the cream that needs changing. It is your attitude toward sticking with it.

This exchange illustrates prejudical behavior, bias and a disconnect between a provider’s perceptions and a patient’s experience.

For people trying to lose weight, new approaches are needed.
New approaches are needed for those trying to lose weight. Jamie Grill/JGI via Getty Images

Prejudice and bias

For someone who wants to lose weight, the experience of a diet and exercise prescription is not the same as for a lean person on the same program. Perceiving another person’s experience as the same as one’s own when circumstances are different fuels prejudice and bias.

That night, though, you can’t help but wonder: “Is something wrong with me? Maybe my genes or thyroid or something? The cream seems so fun and easy for everyone else.”

At this point, the blame unconscionably lands on the patient. Despite an undeniable explosion of this rash, and abysmal treatment adherence rates while we have been touting the cream, we stubbornly maintain it works. If the rash is expanding, and hundreds of millions of people are failing treatment or relapsing every day, well – it’s their own fault!

As time goes on, you feel increasingly discouraged and depressed because of this untenable situation. Frustration wears on your sense of optimism and chips away at your happy moments. You have this rash and you can’t tolerate the treatment plan, but no one believes you. They judge you, and say you choose not to use the cream because you lack willpower and resolve. You overhear their conversations: “It’s her own fault,” they say. “If that were me, I would just use the d#$% cream.”

This is the very definition of prejudice: an opinion, often negative, directed toward someone and related to something that the individual does not control. Although it has been extensively demonstrated that the causes for overweight and obesity are multifactorial, the myth that it’s the patient’s fault is still widely accepted. This perception of controllability leads to the assignment of derogatory stigma.

A setup for failure

That evening you sit alone. You think there’s not a single person on the planet who believes your body won’t tolerate this treatment. Society believes you brought this on yourself to begin with; there doesn’t seem to be a way out.

We have driven those with overweight and obesity conditions to this place far too many times. We have set them up to take the fall for our failed treatment approaches. When they came to us with the truth about tolerability, we loudly discredited them and said they were mentally weak, noncompliant or lazy.

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So where do we go from here? If we agree to stop stigmatizing, stereotyping and blaming patients for our treatment failures, and we accept that our current nonsurgical paradigm is ineffective – what takes its place?

For starters, we need a new approach, founded on respect and dignity for patients. A fresh lens of acceptance and suspended judgment will allow us to shift our focus toward treatments for the body, rather than “mind over matter,” which is a concept we use for no other medical condition. A perspective based in objectivity and equality will allow caregivers to escape the antiquated blaming approach and perceive those with overweight or obese conditions in the same light as those with other diseases. Only then will we finally shift the paradigm.

J. David Prologo does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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