The Size of Your Doctor?

by Hilary Kinavey, MS, LPC

Did you see this little article in the New York Times magazine on 3/18/12?

“How Fat Is Your Doctor” By Hope Reeves

“In addition to the hassles and indignities they face on a daily basis, it turns out that overweight people also may not make very good doctors — at least when it comes to treating overweight patients. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University surveyed 500 primary-care physicians and found that doctors who battled the bulge themselves (those with a body-mass index of 25 or above) were less likely to recognize fatness or offer their patients diet tips. Basically,says the researcher Sara Bleich, “your doctor is unlikely to diagnose obesity or have weight-loss discussions with you if they weigh more than you.” Thin doctors, typically, seem to be just freaking perfect.”

This weight-biased data suggests that the discussions regarding weight in doctors offices across this country are actually helpful at producing change.  It also suggests that the discussions between doctors in larger bodies and their patients are not happening and those patients are somehow missing out on some important information.


It has been my experience that many of my “overweight” clients are actually having second thoughts or actively avoiding medical care to steer clear of the recognition of fatness that is referred to in this article. Some work diligently to find medical practitioners who are willing to entertain discussions with patients of all sizes that involve sustainable and weight-neutral self-care.  Most don’t know where to turn, but certainly would like to avoid the sometimes shaming and often unproductive recommendations regarding weight loss.

In fact, the research on weight bias through the Yale Rudd Center is showing that the most reported incidence of weight bias that people experience is coming from healthcare practitioners and family members.  Weight bias research shows the more bias someone experiences, the more times they will try to cope with that bias through overeating, dieting and other shame inducing methods that do not support sustainable health behaviors. (Puhl and Brownell, 2006/2007)

We also know, from research on Intuitive Eating, that women who can approach their bodies with some acceptance are more likely to eat healthy (Tylka, 2006).  Making assumptions about a person based on their weight, even in a clinical setting, has not necessarily encouraged sustainable health behavior change, and has often done the opposite, producing more shame and potential alienation.

This article, in it’s own tongue in cheek way, suggests that finding a medical professional who mirrors your experience may be the way to go to avoid stigma. I also believe that sharing your needs and expectations with your medical professionals is one of the most important ways you can participate in your own care.

Linda Bacon, in Health at Every Size offers a letter that patients can offer to their health care providers that discusses a sensitive care approach for people of all sizes.

If you have or know of a provider that you have received compassionate or weight-neutral care from, we’d love to know. We are compiling a referral list! Email with the name and contact information.