April 5, 2012

Weight Bias and the Frenzy of Health

From TV shows to finding clothes that
fit, it is obvious that our society has
no patience for "people of size".
I work within a very large organization. My headquarters is on the other side of the country along with those "experts" who are responsible for creating safe, sound, health promotion programs. When I was 5 years younger (and oh so naive and full of hope), I thought I could actually make a difference nationally.  with the master's research in hand and my knowledge and experience, I could help to mold a health promotion program that would reflect the latest research relating to culture and health behaviour change......what the (bleep) was I thinking?

So today, I work within my small community and try my best to make positive changes where I can.  I do not (and never will) offer "Biggest Loser" - type weight loss contests, I will never stand up in front of a group and tell them what they "should" eat and how they "should" behave. I will never forget that everyone has the right to live their life however they wish (give or take hurtful behaviour). I will always try and remember that research is fleeting and nothing is set in stone.  I don't have to tell you, it makes my job a little harder as ...let's be honest...the health promotion field includes many "moral judgements wrapped up in scientific packages" (Pirrko Markula, UBC research in the field of sociology and the body..and my personal hero).

So imagine my mixed emotion (a large amount of frustration coupled with a side order of relief) when one of our "experts" emailed a new study that suggests the Biggest Loser promotes nothing but a big, fat, weight bias.

The researchers examined how exposure to 40-min of The Biggest Loser affected participants’ levels of weight bias amongst 59 participants (majority of whom were white females), who were randomly assigned to either an experimental (one episode of The Biggest Loser) or control (one episode of a nature reality show) condition.

Levels of weight bias as measured by the Implicit Associations Test (IAT), the Obese Person Trait Survey (OPTS), and the Anti-fat Attitudes scale (AFA) at baseline and following the episode viewing (1 week later), showed that viewers of The Biggest Loser had significantly higher levels of dislike of overweight individuals and more strongly believed that weight is controllable after the exposure.

Interestingly, amongst the participants, those who had lower BMIs and were not trying to lose weight had significantly higher levels of dislike of overweight individuals following exposure to The Biggest Loser compared to similar participants in the control condition.

These results clearly indicate that anti-fat attitudes increase after brief exposure to weight-loss reality television, especially perhaps in people with lower BMI.

Given the impact that anti-weight bias has on all aspects of trying to find solutions to obesity (from public health messaging to funding for obesity research or treatments), not to mention its devastating emotional and physical impact on people living with excess weight, perhaps it is time to revisit social norms and acceptability of this form of entertainment.

These shows are not a solution - they are part of the problem! 
Source:  Domoff, et al., Bowling Green State University., Ohio, USA
Not only this, but I have noticed a wave of information on health lately related to the latest superfood or wrist slap for those who are gluttonous and sloth-like. I feel a professional responsibility to peruse the health news each morning so I may armour up for any questions that may come my way. 

An example of this occurred just last night at a fabulous gathering of fabulous women-friends. In truth, we are a board, but after the meeting it turned into a free-for-all.  All of a sudden, the subject turned to nutrition and weight loss and I found myself in the middle of a series of questions all coming at me at the same time. Others were adding their two cents while I felt a growing uneasiness with the subject matter. Questions relating to the best diet for weight loss, whether supplements are necessary, what do I think of ..(I'm sorry, what was the name of that fancy chemical again?). All I could think was health and nutrition needn't be this scientific nor detailed. I felt like I was drowning in a subject matter that really doesn't matter (if you want to attain Real Life Health).  Is it healthy to scrutinize the ingredients of an innocent wafer for any traces of wheat? Unless you have an allergy toward it, I don't believe a trace will effect the body's homeostasis...but it may effect your mental health.

As one woman put it so well last night, "Organic is a bunch of crap (although she didn't say crap)!"

I'm trying hard to understand why people (in general and not directed to the group I was with last night) spend their time and energy searching out of paying for supplements and nutritional programs when they continue to consume processed foods. Why take any superfood if you aren't attending to your stress or sleep? You want to know the answer to good health and nutrition? Here's my two cents on the subject....
  1. Manage your stress so you can absorb and get the best out of what you are eating.
  2. Eat whole foods; do not purchase anything processed (anything with more than 6 ingredients or ingredients you can't pronounce).
  3. Get out; get active. It doesn't matter what you do (eg. an energetic bout of lovemaking may be equal to the health benefits of a spin class)...I'm just sayin'
  4. Avoid as much sugar as you can. I have a feeling the results are coming in and they ain't good. Sugar is a toxin that will shake your body out of balance. I believe it may be the route to many chronic diseases.
  5. Attend to your emotional health. Be aware of your feelings and how to verbalize them. Allow yourself to feel the crappy ones and try not to mask them with shopping, eating, TV watching, or with the demon liquor (not that I would know anything about that).
  6. Enjoy your food, your friends, your family, your romance, and try not to worry about every trace of ingredient in your food (unless it makes you literally ill). That's not was life is about.

On that note, have a happy Easter. I hope you run into a chocolate egg and it accidentally falls into your mouth (those are the best accidents).



  1. A wonderful article as usual, Kathi.

    I think it would be interesting if you were to conduct a survey to understand why people can be so into supplements (remember when they were simply vitamins), but will continue to eat crappy-processed food that clearly does them no good. And as to why we would consume superfoods and not focus instead on attending to reducing our stress and increasing our sleep is a good question. My guess is the superfood is easier to control. I still will deprive myself of sleep too often (thank you for the reminder!)

    Loved your "two cent" list. Numbers 5 and 6 are probably the two I will work to integrate more.

    All the best!

  2. Hi Daniel;
    Great to hear from you. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It is so nice to get a comment that is clearly coming from personal experience and critical thought. I appreciate your time and thank you very much for continuing to read these posts.
    All the best to you too!