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Obesity Stigma Battle Just Beginning for Coventry University Dietetics and Nutrition Teams

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As World Obesity Day approaches, Coventry University’s academics are trying to help end the stigma around the condition.

The way obesity is often discussed has led professors across the Health and Life Sciences faculty to find new ways to help their students bust myths about the condition.

That includes changing the language used, so people with obesity are no longer called obese, but are told they have obesity.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the team had been letting their students wear a bodysuit in the university’s occupational therapy house to help them understand what it is like to be overweight and empathise with their patients.

Carla Phillips, course director of BSc Hons Dietetics, says it is just one way of giving students an insight into the physical complexities of the condition. She said: ‘The bodysuit has been brought in to help our students’ empathy with patients and to try to tackle weight stigma. They are very heavy so we get the students to put them on, walk up and down the stairs and see how difficult it is. If you have a heavy weight deposited around your waist, even simple things like tying shoelaces or walking up the stairs are very difficult. The students get hot, sweaty and breathless and their centre of gravity is off. It gets them to appreciate how difficult it is when you are overweight or obese.

‘Our student dieticians will go out on placements and be out in clinics and will be giving advice. Dietetics students are really passionate about nutrition and healthy eating, but what we need to teach them is what it’s like to really live with obesity.’

Assistant Professor in Dietetics, Sally Abbott, combines her university role with clinical work as an NHS weight management and bariatric dietician. She is teaching her students to tackle the stigma associated with obesity on the internet. She said: ‘As dieticians, our role is to also dispel the myths around nutrition and about the causation of obesity. In this modern world, our students need to be able to challenge negative stigmas both in-person and online. We have dedicated teaching seminars on weight stigma, where we challenge our students to think about their role in society and as future healthcare professionals, and how they address weight stigma in their personal and professional lives. 

‘As future dieticians, our students need to be confident to challenge misinformation online and with the media and ensure they are not inadvertently contributing to weight stigma. Being non-judgemental and using people-first language is the first step to addressing weight stigma in healthcare. People with obesity should not be labelled as being “obese”. They have a condition. They have obesity.’

If you want to follow in Carla and Sally’s footsteps and learn more about dietetics see the course details here:

Some pledges from their student dieticians include:

  • From now on, I will use the phrase ‘you have obesity’ instead of telling patients ‘you are obese’, which I have done in the past.
  • The patient is a person and I will always try my best to put myself in their shoes and understand their lifestyle, not just focus on their weight.
  • Confront friends and family if they are showing that they are stigmatising others by making fat jokes, etc.
  • Think about what they must be going through every day, and take that into consideration when speaking to them, and how I would feel if that was me.

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