Weight Bias among Dietetic Students

Recently, a study was published regarding dietitians and stereotyping overweight individuals.  I found this study interesting for a few reasons.  The sample of study participants were mostly white women (92% of the study participants were women and 85% of the sample was white, 9% Asian, 4% Hispanic, and 1% African American).  Many studies continuously suggest that eating disorders are the most common among white women, and it isn’t out of the question that most nutrition students move into the nutrition field particularly due to their own insecurities about weight-related issues.  In other words, the sample of students chosen for this study were a bunch of women who most likely had or have eating issues in their lives.

Given that significant little tidbit, the students completed an online survey called the “Fat Phobia Scale.”  In the measure, they rated the adjectives that they believed best described obese people. Higher scores reflected negative attitudes, while lower scores were positive ones.  The outcome was the following:

Negative adjective on Fat Phobia Scale % Agreement
Lazy 41
No willpower 41
Unattractive 54
Poor self-control 65
Slow 68
Having no endurance 72
Inactive 77
Weak 31
Self-indulgent 47
Likes food 80
Shapeless 36
Overeats 81
Insecure 80
Low self-esteem 75

After rating the above scale, the students were randomly assigned to read one of four mock health profiles.  The profiles were almost identical in their content, with only two differences in the parameters: 1. the patients were either obese or average weight; 2. the patients were either male or female.  The students were then asked to judge the health status of each patient.  The results were that they rated obese patients as less likely to follow through with treatment compared with average weight patients.

After this study was published, many articles (such as this one by Medicinenet) talk about the implication that these biases will have on obesity treatment, which basically stated that such negative attitudes will probably have a negative impact on the quality of care.

Is this true?  Part of me agrees that it’s important for those in health-care to remain as objective as possible in order to diagnose the situation accordingly.  But dietitians are in their field SPECIFICALLY BECAUSE WEIGHT, FOOD, NOURISHING AND EATING ISSUES are important to them, regardless of whether or not they are insecure about their own weight.  The “Fat Phobia Scale” reflects weight-related attitudes that might actually help in the quality of care, given such strong beliefs from the students.  I am questioning the implications that the results of this study seem to have stirred.  Perhaps there is a level of weight-bias necessary to treat people with weight issues.

For more info, see The Arizona Republic article.


One response to this post.

  1. Hi Marissa!
    Great post on weight bias.. I wrote about this on my blog for dietetics students too–jennywesterkamp.blogspot.com (which is actually in the process of moving to allaccessinternships.blogspot.com) I agree with the points you make, I didn’t think about it like you did!
    Keep up the blogging!! 🙂


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