Following is an edited transcript of the presentation I gave at the Weight Stigma in Healthcare Settings conference at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) on October 18, 2018. The video of my actual presentation is available here.
I have been an MGH patient for a long time. Over the years, I have had three back surgeries here, and the staff has always been amazing. That includes my surgeon, the physical therapists, occupational therapists, nurses, and everybody who helped me during my hospitalizations. Because of the high level of care that I have received here, I feel particularly grateful to have the opportunity to talk with you today. Certainly, this 15-minute talk does not even out everything I have received over the years in terms of give and take, but it feels like a step in the right direction.
My first surgery was over 20 years ago when I was an undergrad at Tufts University, after a preseason physical for the tennis team ultimately revealed a tumor on my spine. After I recovered from the operation and graduated with a double major in mathematics and English, I worked across the river from here as an operations research analyst for the Department of Transportation.
The DOT was a fine place to work, but I realized the field of transportation was not for me. After a period of trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my career, I decided to go back to school to study nutrition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Once I completed my degree and my internship over at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, I finally became a registered dietitian, and to be honest, I thought I was going to be amazing. The way I saw it, the basis of nutrition is biology, biology is essentially chemistry, chemistry boils down to physics, and physics is really just math. And who has a math degree? Me. Plus, with my experience in research analysis, and my background in athletics and having worked on the side as a personal trainer, I thought I had all the education and background I needed to be a great dietitian. Calories in and calories out, the Krebs cycle, grams, medical nutrition therapy, energy metabolism, what have you. If they had taught it to me, I had learned it and learned it well, so I thought I was going to be a star.
My initial patients thought I was great, too. They came to me primarily looking to lose weight or to change their body composition, and the vast majority of them did. They were thrilled with their results, some of them called me a “guru,” and they referred their friends.
Everything seemed great, but then I began to notice a pattern. In almost all cases, the initial weight loss plateaued and began to reverse. Maybe it took months, maybe it took years, but the results were almost always the same. My patients looked to me for the answers. After all, I was the one who helped them to lose the weight in the first place. But really, I had no answers. Based on my training, what I was doing should have been working, so what was the problem?
I remember how nervous my patients would be when they got on the scale or on the table for a body composition analysis, but what they did not know was that I was right there with them, as I experienced a really intense internal anxiety, praying that the numbers would be to their liking because if they were not, I was at a loss. Despite the high opinion of myself that I initially had, I began to realize the truth, which was that I kind of sucked at being a dietitian. I got into dietetics because I wanted to help people, and I realized that I was doing nothing of the sort. I felt like a fraud because, honestly, I was. I thought I had all the answers, my patients thought I had all the answers, but the truth was that I had very few of them.
Right around the time that I was experiencing this professional crisis of sorts, questioning everything that I was doing, my wife, who is also a dietitian, was attending a peer supervision group at MEDA, the Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association, so I decided to tag along. We would go around and share our most challenging cases with the group in order to learn from each other and get support that would enable us to better help our patients. When I mentioned that I was consistently seeing weight regain in my patients and I did not know what to do about it, the group leader told me that in approximately 95% of cases, people regain the weight they lose, and in about 60% of cases, people end up heavier than when they started.
My initial reaction was essentially, “Come on, there is no way that is true. If that were true, they would have taught us that in school.” So, I began asking around to other seasoned dietitians I respected, and to my surprise, they confirmed the same. Still, I was skeptical, so they pointed me towards research and articles to back up what they were saying.
For example, according to the New York Times, “After two days of testimony from leading obesity specialists, the panel said it had found no good evidence that any currently popular methods of ‘voluntary’ weight loss had much chance for long-term success. In fact, what evidence the panel could find suggested that 90 to 95 percent of dieters regain all or most of their hard-lost pounds within five years.”
Despite what they taught us in school about calories in and calories out, eat less and exercise more, and all of that, it turned out that nobody had demonstrated that they knew how to create long-term weight loss in more than a small fraction of the people who hope to achieve it. Clearly, I still had a lot to learn.
So, I began talking with more colleagues and doing the reading that they suggested, works like Beyond a Shadow of a Diet, Intuitive Eating, and Health at Every Size. My wife and I became members of ASDAH, the Association for Size Diversity and Health, and networked with colleagues all over the planet who had all come to realize that focusing on weight does not work and were instead utilizing a weight-neutral approach to care with greater success.
Knowing what my wife and I now knew, we wanted to adopt a weight-neutral approach to care, too, and maybe you are thinking to yourself that you have some interest in doing the same – maybe that is what brought you here today – but you probably realize just as we did that it is not that easy to shift gears.
Our professions demand that we further our education, hence continuing education requirements, but when new information makes us realize that we have not been helping people as we thought we were, that can be tough. One of the hardest parts for me was coming to terms with my mistakes and working through the guilt that I felt for having taken patients down a path that turned out to be less helpful than I had expected.
Beyond that, changing approaches risks losing our established patient pool, which risks our livelihoods. Our bills do not suddenly stop coming while we regroup and build up a new practice; the reality is that we all have to keep earning a living.
In a healthcare culture that is very weight focused, announcing that we are taking a weight-neutral approach not only risks losing patients, but also referral sources, our professional credibility, and maybe even our job.
For senior clinicians, including those in managerial roles, change is not easy for them either. Grants, book deals, and clinics can revolve around a given approach and professional identity built up over years and years, and changing direction can risk all of that.
My wife and I are privileged and lucky, in that circumstances and opportunity came together and we had the freedom to change, because certainly not everybody does.
Now that we have changed approaches, we find a weight-neutral approach to nutrition to be so much more helpful and beneficial than a weight-focused approach. Trying to foster long-term weight loss is generally a fruitless task, but by taking a Health at Every Size (HAES) approach, we can bypass that and go directly at whatever someone’s health concerns are.
As examples, if someone has high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or glycemic control issues, we can use medical nutrition therapy to treat these conditions directly, as opposed to attempting to use weight loss as an intermediary.
As another example, if someone is trying to improve athletic performance, we can focus directly on nutrition interventions to improve their performance, rather than hoping that weight loss will bring about increased strength, speed, endurance, or flexibility, when really it might just bring about a nutrient deficiency or an eating disorder.
A fatphobic model is particularly problematic when working with eating disorders, some of which are brought about by concerns about weight and body size in the first place. Trying to tell someone with anorexia that we will help them regain some weight – but not too much weight – reinforces weight stigma and actually colludes with the eating disorder voice, thereby hindering recovery. An approach that incorporates size acceptance, which HAES does, sets the stage for better outcomes.
Now, don’t get me wrong, being weight-neutral, as we are, is different than being anti-weight loss. If someone, through the course of behavior change, happens to lose weight as a side effect and they are happy about that, great, no problem. It’s just that the weight loss is not our goal, nor is it the focus of our work.
When we think of weight bias and the inherent issues with weight-centered care, we often think of the impact on people at the larger end of the spectrum, but the truth is that weight stigma in healthcare hurts thin people, too.
This quote is from a dietitian in Oregon. “I think there are a good number of people at the lower end of the weight spectrum who have undiagnosed sleep apnea. have a friend who was exhausted for years, did lots and lots of testing, and yet because she was thin, they never tested for sleep apnea. And sure enough, that’s what it was…five years later.”
An Australian colleague says, “I know of thin and active people, including a close friend and my physio who weren’t tested for cholesterol, diabetes, hypertension etc. because it was assumed they wouldn’t have an issue when they actually did have very high cholesterol, hypertension, or diabetes.”
According to a therapist practicing in California, “I have also had many clients tell me that because their bodies looked ‘healthy’ their providers would say, ‘Whatever you are doing, keep it up!’ even though they were throwing up, abusing laxatives, compulsively exercising, etc. To a one they talked about how utterly lonely they felt, and how it confirmed that the world did not care about what was really going on with them as long as they just kept up appearances.”
As a thin person myself, I have had doctors make incorrect assumptions about my eating habits because of my size. Whereas fat patients of mine tell me stories about how their doctors give them unsolicited nutrition advice, things like “lay off the bread basket” without even first inquiring about their bread consumption, doctors will bring up nutrition to me only to very quickly stop themselves, citing not my profession, but rather my frame, assuming that I must already be eating as they would have suggested because I am thin.
After my first back surgery, my neurologist cautioned me to “stay skinny,” telling me that if I ever thought about slacking off in terms of physical activity, to remember this conversation I was having with him. I certainly do remember that conversation, as it triggered an exercise addiction that took me over a decade to resolve. All those years, I went to him for follow-up, and he and other doctors missed blatant red flags that I had a problem because the attitude was “You’re thin, so whatever you are doing, keep it up.”
Even though I love my PCP, he is reluctant to order lab work because he sees a thin guy in front of him and tells me “I have zero concerns,” whereas I think of my family history, there are certain markers I want to be keeping tabs on, so every year we go through the same song and dance as we renegotiate what to test.
Professionally, I have had patients assume I know the secrets to getting and staying thin because I am thin myself. This is a huge issue in personal training, too, where our bodies are seen as advertisements for our services. Not only does this create a barrier, in which people who would make awesome dietitians and trainers are wary of entering the field for fear they will not be taken seriously since they do not look the part, but the presence of size-based bias in the room is a hurdle that can hinder care, conjure up false expectations, and mislead patients regarding expertise or lack thereof.
In truth, my size is mainly the product of genetics, privilege, and luck. Despite the overconfidence that I had when I finished nutrition school, the truth is that I still have a lot to learn, and I certainly have no secrets, except for maybe one, which I will share with you now: Some of my colleagues who are much bigger than me, the ones who have trouble getting patients, or referrals, or even jobs – because who wants to see the fat dietitian, obviously they do not practice what they preach, right? That’s the garbage that some people say? – Well, the truth is, the secret is, that these colleagues might be a lot bigger than me, but they are also way better clinicians than me even though I am thin.