Is Weight Bias Making You Unhealthy?

You’re in the grocery store and you see a larger woman wheel past you in the aisle.  You eye her cart and see bags of potato chips and a couple gallons of ice cream. In a flash your mind wonders how she can buy all that at her size, and you “know” why she’s so big.                                                                                                                                                                        

This judgment may happen even without your permission, because our brains are programmed to instantly assess our surroundings and jump to conclusions based on past inputs, or biases.  Biases can be ingrained in us through the culture, beliefs, and prejudices and happen instantaneously before our higher brain functions even notice let alone correct them.

If you’re unaware that you have certain biases, you may not even notice your judgement, or the fact that your cart also has that ice cream and chips.  

One of the biggest biases in the Western culture today is that of weight.  No matter your size, weight bias still affects most of us. If you’re curious to see just how biased you are, you can take this free Weight Bias test here (click I wish to proceed, select a test: Weight IAT).

If you’re biased, you don’t have to feel bad about it.  We can’t control our biases, as we pick up on them subconsciously from years of cultural exposure.  But once you’re aware of your bias, you can work on becoming more aware of how this bias affects your thoughts and behaviors.  You can educate yourself on the facts, rather than your biases.

As I was re-reading the eye-opening book Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon last week, I was curious about just how much weight bias exists.  I asked a nurse I know if she feels there’s weight bias among her colleagues. She didn’t hesitate a moment to say absolutely, and she is one of them.

Sadly weight bias is extremely common in the healthcare field, which actually promotes poor health.  That’s because many of those who meet the criteria for overweight or obesity avoid seeking treatment because of how they’re treated.  Even if seeking care for something unrelated to weight, someone’s weight is often brought up, and they’re often told they need to lose it.  

Can you imagine going to your doctor for a broken arm and being told you need to shave your head because it’s really not healthy to have all that extra hair??  Would you keep going back? It’s just as absurd to think that losing weight will magically solve all health related concerns. That may sound surprising to you, but that’s because of just how overblown the dangers of extra weight actually are.

Can you imagine going to your doctor for a broken arm and being told you need to shave your head because it’s really not healthy to have all that extra hair?? Would you keep going back? It’s just as absurd to think that losing weight… Click To Tweet

A recent study showed that in the absence of other risk factors, healthy obesity can be just that – healthy.   And being in the “overweight” category actually reduces your risk of dying from all causes.  The BMI cutoff for adults over 65 years old actually increases to ensure you have enough weight to protect you in old age.  Being underweight may lead to more deaths than being either overweight or obese.

Interestingly, obese people in cultures where weight is not stigmatized do not suffer the same diseases related to obesity in cultures who do stigmatize weight.  Chronic stress is a known inflammatory agent, and increases risk for heart disease and diabetes. And being stigmatized is stressful for most people.

Interestingly, obese people in cultures where weight is not stigmatized do not suffer the same diseases related to obesity in cultures who do stigmatize weight. ~Meghan Leah, MS, RD Click To Tweet

There’s a growing body of research showing that it’s not the weight itself, but the stress of living in a society who stigmatizes weight so strongly that actually leads to the health concerns often blamed on weight.  This makes sense given the amount of “normal” weight people who have the same diseases attributed to obesity.

There’s a growing body of research showing that it’s not the weight itself, but the stress of living in a society who stigmatizes weight so strongly that actually leads to the health concerns often blamed on weight. ~Meghan Leah, MS,… Click To Tweet

There are the physical effects of stress, and then there’s the impact of stress and shame on behavior.  Too many people feel shame, disgust and guilt because of their weight. And in case you didn’t already know it, there’s now research to show that these negative emotions DO NOT lead to healthy behaviors.  They do lead to self-medicating and self-soothing behaviors, which includes eating food that produces a numbing and/or euphoric feeling. And I don’t have to tell you these understandable behaviors don’t tend to improve health.

Think about this: If you look at what I personally have been known to eat in a day, then see someone of size eating that way, most would judge that person simply because they’re bigger.  Would you judge a thin person eating ice cream? Why does the thin person deserve to go out for ice cream when a heavy person doesn’t? What would happen if you were shamed into never eating ice cream again – what are the chances of you binging on that food eventually?

So what should we do?  You may have heard of the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement.  But there’s some misconceptions about just what that means. It means that every body deserves the same care regardless of size.  It means that health can be achieved independent from your weight.  It means focusing on healthy behaviors rather than the scale.

Health at Every Size DOES NOT mean trashing your body or eating whatever you want when you want.  It means listening to and respecting your body, regardless of your size. It means eating when you’re hungry, not suppressing your appetite to try and lose weight.  It means getting rid of the shame and guilt for having a certain body size or shape. It means learning to stop chasing and worshiping the thin ideal as the only healthy or attractive body.  It truly means Health at Every Size.

1 thought on “Is Weight Bias Making You Unhealthy?”

  1. Very astute and enlightening—aptly underscores the impact of cultural attitudes on eating behavior and self-worth. Also helps clarify weight/health misunderstandings.

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