Fat Shaming in the Doctor’s Office can be Mentally and Physically Harmful: APA 125th Annual Convention

September 3, 2018

Health care providers may offer weight loss advice in place of medical treatment, researchers sayMaureen McHugh, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, Pennsylvania

Medical discrimination based on people’s size and negative stereotypes of overweight people can take a toll on people’s physical health and well-being, according to a review of recent research presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association (APA).

Sizeism can also have an effect on how doctors medically treat patients, as overweight people are often excluded from medical research based on assumptions about their health status, meaning the standard dosage for drugs may not be appropriate for larger body sizes. Recent studies have shown frequent under-dosing of overweight patients who were prescribed antibiotics and chemotherapy.

 In one study of over 300 autopsy reports, obese patients were 1.65 times more likely than others to have significant undiagnosed medical conditions (e.g., endocarditis, ischemic bowel disease or lung carcinoma), indicating misdiagnosis or inadequate access to health care. Studies show that negative attitudes among medical providers can also cause psychological stress in patients.

According to the researchers, a medicalized view of weight conceptualizes fatness as a disease and weight loss as a cure. A weight-centric model of health assumes that weight is within an individual’s control, equates higher weight with poor health habits, and believes weight loss will result in improved health.

Evidence confirms that fat shaming is not an effective approach to reducing obesity or improving health, rather, stigmatization of obese individuals poses serious risks to their psychological health. Research demonstrates that weight stigma leads to psychological stress, which can lead to poor physical and psychological health outcomes for obese people.

It is essential for weight stigma to be addressed in psychology and the medical profession—in training, in theory and research, and in working with fat clients. Treatments should focus on mental and physical health as the desired outcomes for therapy, and not on weight.


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