Talk about Behaviors and Feelings – Not Weight or Size

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Talk about Behaviors and Feelings – Not Weight or Size

 Jim Windell

            Children who are the objects of teasing and weight bias suffer a number of negative effects – from depression to eating disorders.

            But it’s not just school kids who are the targets of weight and size discrimination. The same holds true in the workplace for adults. And according to Nichole Kelly, an Evergreen Professor in the University of Oregon College of Education, weight discrimination at work – both overt and subtle – leads to feelings of inadequacy and shame.

            Nicole Kelly studies weight stigma, eating behaviors and chronic disease risk. In an interview published on the website Newswise, she recently discussed the detrimental effect for kids and adults when they are stigmatized because of their body size. She said that when the medical profession focuses on the “obesity epidemic,” they miss out on the opportunity of talking about what’s really important – the epidemics of inactivity, loneliness, and poor dietary options, which are all better predictors of chronic disease.

           In effect, by concentrating on body mass index (BMI), we are also missing opportunities to talk about health with adults and children of all sizes, Kelly says. The fact is, she notes, everyone benefits from being active, eating fruits and vegetables, getting regular sleep, and feeling supported.

           Kelly was hired at the University of Oregon College of Education in 2016 with a cluster of researchers who were all focused on health and well-being. Kelly points out that she has seen firsthand how the medical field’s emphasis on weight affects the mental and physical health of adults and children, particularly within the last year or so. Health officials sounding the alarm about weight gain during the pandemic, she says, have inadvertently helped drive higher rates of treatment referrals for eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and binge eating.

           “Talking so much about weight,” Kelly says, “is making things worse.”

           The author or coauthor of several studies on issues associated with weight bias, Kelly says that that term has to do with the prevailing belief that a thin body is good and healthy while a large body is bad and unhealthy. She has also published on the issue of weight discrimination.

           She indicates that she found that weight-based teasing is associated with higher body image concerns and eating disorder symptoms among men between the ages of 18 and 30. “It’s a common misperception that this is something that affects only women,” she says, “but it affects individuals with diverse genders, ethnicities, and body sizes.”

           Body size is not legally protected as it relates to discrimination, Kelly notes, and studies show that while other forms of overt discrimination have decreased over time, weight bias has increased. “People have referred to it as one of the last socially acceptable forms of discrimination,” she says. “People still think it’s funny to put jokes about bigger bodies in movies and comedy, and when people with larger bodies are represented, they are often characterized as sloppy, unintelligent, and clumsy.”

           People often assume that those with larger bodies lack discipline, are in poor health, and don’t engage in healthy behaviors, Kelly says, but there are numerous genetic, medical, and cultural factors – often beyond an individual’s control – that contribute to body size and make it extremely difficult to lose weight and keep it off.

           And while our genetics haven’t changed much in the last 40 years, the environments in which we move, work, play, and eat look different, Kelly points out. Sedentary workplaces have largely replaced those that enabled people to be active on the job, and affordable foods are often high in fat and sugar.

           Toward ending society’s obsession with weight, Kelly and her colleagues advocate that parents, teachers, and medical professionals stop using the words “fat,” “obese,” and “overweight,” terms considered highly stigmatizing. Instead, they should promote behaviors such as exercise, eating fruits and vegetables, sleep, and stress reduction. Kelly wants doctors to ask parents questions such as, “How’s your kid feeling? Are they feeling supported? How have they been sleeping? Are they getting chances to move their bodies?”

           Kelly is not suggesting that scientists abandon the study of weight and weight loss as health factors. “But while we continue to research potential health strategies, we have to shift our focus more toward behaviors and experiences that have shown to be better related to chronic disease,” Kelly says. “Feeling a lack of social support is a better predictor of premature morbidity and mortality than weight. How do we help people feel more supported and less alone? I just think we are misdirected in our efforts to help people be healthier and happier.”

           To read the original story, go to this link.




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