How Harmful Is Weight Stigma for a Senior?

As the adult child of a senior parent – whether or not you officially are engaged in caregiving assistance – you certainly are concerned about your aging mother or father’s physical, psychological, and emotional well-being. In recent years, a considerable degree of shaming has been ongoing regarding weight issues. As the adult child of a senior parent who might be carrying a bit of proverbial extra weight, you may wonder how harmful weight shaming and weight stigma may be for an older individual. In this article, we provide some basic answers to the question of how harmful weight shaming or weight stigma is to an older person.

Overview of Weight Stigma

Weight stigma, as defined in a recent BioMed Central article, is the “social rejection and devaluation that accrues to those who do not comply with prevailing social norms of adequate body weight and shape.” Put simply, weight shaming or weight stigma is a form of discrimination or denigration based on an individual’s body weight. Seniors can be subjected to weight stigma in a way similar to what is endured by younger individuals.

The authors of this article maintain that weight stigma can trigger physical changes in the body. These include increased cortisol levels. In turn, increased cortisol levels can result in poor metabolic health and increased weight gain.

In addition, those people with higher body weight (including older individuals) may cope with weight stigma by increasing alcohol and other substance use. Moreover, overeating may occur as a means to deal with negative emotions. Finally, an older individual subject to weight stigmatization may avoid healthcare settings or social encounters. The subsequent negative health outcomes are a result of what they call chronic social stress. Studies have found that the harmful effects of weight discrimination resulted in a 60 percent increased risk of death, even when body mass index (BMI) was controlled for some time.

Addressing Weight Shaming and Weight Stigma in Healthcare Settings

A reader might be surprised to learn that the healthcare setting is one in which weight stigma is particularly rampant. This situation has led to significant health consequences for people who are overweight or suffering from obesity. 

Studies have shown that many physicians show strong “anti-fat bias” in health care situations. This bias results in reduced quality of care and is yet another way in which weight stigma contributes to poor health in people who are overweight and obese.

As in everyday situations, there are different ways to address stigma in healthcare settings. Clinicians should acknowledge the existence of weight shaming and weight stigma. In addition, avoiding the standard cookie-cutter advice to eat less and exercise more to lose weight would greatly benefit patients. This advice doesn’t consider the many environmental, genetic, and physiologic causes of obesity. It blames the patient as the sole cause and contributor to their obesity, which is often not the case.

Clinicians should also strive not to assume a patient with obesity is automatically engaging in overeating behaviors. They should believe their patients’ reports of dietary intake and physical activity. The bottom line is that the clinical visit should focus on gathering information and understanding a patient’s situation. Referral to an obesity specialist may be warranted if the clinician is uncomfortable discussing or prescribing different treatment options.

Facts and Statistics About Weight Stigma

Weight stigma is a major issue in society today. It affects people of all ages, sizes, and backgrounds. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), weight stigma is “discrimination or prejudicial attitudes towards individuals based on their body size or weight.” Weight stigma has been linked to various negative health outcomes, including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Here are five statistics about weight stigma that you should know:

  1. According to a 2017 survey by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut, nearly two-thirds of adults in the United States report experiencing weight discrimination at some point. This includes subtle and overt discrimination based on an individual’s weight.
  2. A 2011 survey conducted by NEDA found that almost one-third of participants reported having experienced weight discrimination in a professional setting or when applying for a job or promotion.
  3. Research published in 2018 suggested that overweight and obese children are twice as likely to experience teasing and bullying compared to their peers with healthy weights. The study noted that this type of peer aggression could have long-term impacts on mental health and well-being into adulthood.
  4. A 2016 survey from the Endocrine Society found that 70% of healthcare providers believe they are qualified to provide advice about diet and exercise for patients regardless of their knowledge level or expertise in nutrition science or exercise physiology. This can lead to inappropriate counseling and reinforce negative stereotypes about body size and shape that contribute to weight stigma and disordered eating behaviors among patients seeking medical care for obesity-related concerns.
  5. Multiple studies have shown that healthcare providers often hold negative attitudes toward overweight patients, which can lead to biased clinical decisions, such as withholding treatment services or suggesting unrealistic dietary changes for individuals who may not be able to adhere to them due to other medical conditions or financial constraints. This type of implicit bias can lead directly to poorer health outcomes for those affected by it due to being denied appropriate medical care or feeling ashamed or overwhelmed when presented with illogical advice from their doctor’s office that reinforces existing stigmas against body size diversity rather than offering evidence-based guidance grounded in compassion and respect for individual needs and circumstances.

Weight stigma is an ongoing issue today, but it doesn’t have to be this way. By raising awareness about these issues, we can help reduce their prevalence. We do this by bringing attention to its consequences on vulnerable populations who are too often subjected to unfair judgment based solely on their physical appearance rather than on factors like character, abilities, talents, intelligence, and so much more.