Doctors Are Harming Fat Patients By Advising Them To Lose Weight, Say Psychologists

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Ian Miles Cheong Contributor
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Doctors who advise fat patients to lose weight could be harming them both “mentally and physically,” claim two psychologists, who stated that the obese experience “microaggressions” when they’re treated at the doctor’s office.

Connecticut College psychology professor Joan Chrisler delivered her remarks during a symposium at theannual convention of the American Psychological Association, which was first reported by Campus Reform on Thursday.

Chrisler was joined by a fellow psychologist who argued that it was possible to be healthy at every size, and that being fat led to false assumptions that a person is unhealthy, with no understanding of an obese person’s genetics, diet, stress levels, and socioeconomic class.

“Disrespectful treatment and medical fat shaming, in an attempt to motivate people to change their behavior, is stressful and can cause patients to delay health care seeking or avoid interacting with providers,” said professor Chrisler, whose symposium was titled “Weapons of Mass Distraction – Confronting Sizeism.”

Sizeism, she argued, can have an effect on how doctors treat their overweight patients, whom she says are often excluded from medical research due to preconceptions about their health and lifestyle.

“Research has shown that doctors repeatedly advise weight loss for fat patients while recommending CAT scans, blood work or physical therapy for other, average weight patients,” said the professor, who stated that in some cases doctors wrongly assume that their obesity is the cause of symptoms they experience.

“Thus, they could jump to conclusions or fail to run appropriate tests, which results in misdiagnosis,” she said.

In her speech, Chrisler argued that being advised to adopt healthier lifestyles, exercise and lose weight by health providers can cause obese patients to feel bad about themselves, resulting in harmful “psychological stress.” She cited speculative examples of “microaggressions” as major contributors to stress.

“Implicit attitudes might be experienced by patients as microaggressions — for example, a provider’s apparent reluctance to touch a fat patient, or a headshake, wince or ‘tsk’ while noting the patient’s weight in the chart,” she said. “Microaggressions are stressful over time and can contribute to the felt experience of stigmatization.”

Joining Chrisler, fellow psychologist Maureen McHugh argued that the medical view of obesity as a disease and weight loss as a cure contributed to poor health.

“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,” said McHugh, who argued that it was possible to be healthy at every size.

“Research demonstrates that weight stigma leads to psychological stress, which can lead to poor physical and psychological health outcomes for obese people,” argued McHugh, who added that the stigmatization of obese people through “fat shaming” posed “serious risks to their psychological health.”

Chrisler told Campus Reform that there was no way for her to substantiate the claims made at the symposium, as “it would be unethical to do such an experiment,” but added that it isn’t possible to determine how healthy a person was based on their weight.

Her arguments contradict long-settled medical science.

According to the American Heart Association, obesity places individuals at a much higher risk for health problems including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and a host of other illnesses.

Ian Miles Cheong is a journalist and outspoken media critic. You can reach him through social media at @stillgray on Twitter and on Facebook.