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1st Canadian Summit on Weight Bias and Discrimination an Eye Opener

The Canadian Obesity Network (CON-RCO), one of Canada’s Networks of Centres of Excellence, is playing a lead role in raising awareness about the issue of weight bias and discrimination. The 1st Canadian Summit on Weight Bias and Discrimination, which was held in Toronto in January, was a major step in that process.

Presenters at the Summit highlighted the profound, negative impacts a deeply ingrained stigma against obesity has on individual Canadians, the health system, employers and the economy. Many characterized the phenomena as the last socially accepted and openly engaged form of discrimination.

“Stigmatizing people with excess weight is a popular sport in Canada and most other countries,” says Dr. Arya M. Sharma, scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network (CON-RCO). “The bias against obese people feeds widespread discriminatory behaviours in health care settings, the workplace, schools, media and more. It’s as serious as racism, and it is just as common.”

Research in Canada and the United States has documented the widespread fall out from discrimination against this growing segment of society, including lower wages, fewer promotions, poorer health care service delivery, compromised inter-personal relationships and more. Canadians living with excess weight are also vulnerable to low self-esteem, depression and other serious psychiatric disorders, as well as high blood pressure, stress and a poor quality of life.

The Summit, co-hosted Canadian Obesity Network  and PREVnet and supported by several sponsors, drew a crowd of 150 health professionals, students, policy makers, industry representatives, and educators who heard from an expert panel of eight speakers from across Canada and the United States. Topics included weight bias, bullying, media literacy, mental health, professional education, human rights and complex systems approaches to research and intervention.

In her keynote address, Dr. Rebecca Puhl, director of research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, stressed the importance of tackling the pressing issue of weight bias in society.

Dr. Puhl noted that over the past decade research has shown that obese people are less likely to obtain preventive health services and recent research suggests that weight bias is contributing to this problem. In a study of 498 women, obese women who delayed preventive services attributed their decisions to disrespect from providers, embarrassment of being weighed, negative provider attitudes, medical equipment too small and unsolicited advice to lose weight.

She also pointed out that in the workplace, overweight and obese job candidates with identical resumes, credentials and training as their thinner counterparts are less likely to be hired.  And if hired, they are likely to receive a lower starting salary. A U.S. study, which followed over 12,000 people for 15 years and controlled for many socio-economic and family variables,  found that obese women earn about 6 percent less than thinner women for the same work performed. For obese men it was about 3 percent less.

Decades of research has also shown that this prevalent problem not only affects health and quality of life but also fosters blame and intolerance. Society comes to view obese people as lazy, glutinous individuals with no real or valued identities.

Dr. Puhl emphasized that reducing weight bias will require a major shift in societal attitudes.  It will mean changing the portrayal of obese persons in the media, challenging weight-based stereotypes, educating the public about the complexities of obesity, implementing anti-bullying polices and even introducing legislation to prohibit weight-based discrimination.

In closing, Dr. Puhl reminded the attendees, “We need to ensure that we are fighting obesity and not obese individuals.”

In conjunction with the Summit, an advisory council was created to examine the evidence and make recommendations to address weight bias and discrimination related to obesity in Canada. Council members attended the Summit and then met the following day with the goal of identifying ways to increase attention on weight bias; strategies to reduce bias; and specific actions that need to be implemented to achieve these goals.

“The recommendations of the advisory council will inform CON-RCO's future efforts to curb weight bias and discrimination,” Dr. Sharma concludes. “This is not a problem that is going to go away overnight — it will require a concerted and coordinated effort by governments, educators, media, health professionals and others. The network's role is to bring those groups to the table to identify and implement solutions.”

The Summit presentations can be viewed on the This link will take you to another Web site CON-RCO website. The final This link will take you to another Web site Summit Report, including the advisory council recommendations, is also available on the website.

Issues in weight bias and discrimination will be in focus at the This link will take you to another Web site 2nd National Obesity Summit, April 28-May 1, 2011, in Montreal.

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