How to Support a Loved One Living with Obesity

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March 4-8, 2024, is Obesity Care Week.

Obesity can be a tough topic to talk about. Although more than 2 out of 5 people in the U.S. are living with obesity, stigma and weight bias — negative thoughts and actions toward a person based on their weight — are still very much part of the conversation.

Most people probably associate weight bias with internet trolls and random hecklers, but research shows that friends and family can also be a source of bias. This can be especially true for women and people assigned female at birth. Studies show women are more likely to be treated unfairly because of their weight by family members compared to men.

Kristal Hartman, chair of the Obesity Action Coalition National Board of Directors, said she knows firsthand about the importance of support and understanding when living with obesity.

“When you are loving and caring about a person living with the chronic disease of obesity, step one is to realize that it is a chronic disease just like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease,” she said. “There are 200 comorbidities related to this disease and there is no one right way of treating it.”

Watch: Obesity Is a Complex Disease With a Variety of Treatments >>

Hartman said family and friends can show support by asking thoughtful questions without expectations. “Just say, I know you're on a health journey, and I'm here for you and I am happy to support you in any way possible.”

We asked Hartman for more advice on ways to support a friend or a loved one living with obesity.

Learn about the disease. Obesity is a complex condition. Education and research can help you understand the facts and spread awareness about the disease.

Forget assumptions. It’s important to remember that just because a way of eating or an exercise routine helped you or someone on social media doesn’t mean it will work for everyone else.

Ask questions. Your friend or loved one living with obesity may have an activity or lifestyle change they want to try (Aqua Zumba anyone?) But you’ll never know if you don’t ask.

Start healthy changes in your own life. If you're already thinking about a healthier lifestyle, start making changes yourself and ask if your friend is interested in doing them with you. This can include grocery shopping together, planning meals, starting a walking routine, etc.

Learn about bias. Implicit biases (unconscious) and explicit bias (intentional) contribute to weight bias, stigma and discrimination toward people living with obesity. If you’re aware of bias you can help stop the stigma.

Read: Changing How We Talk About Obesity — A Conversation with Dr. Sowa >>

Test your own bias. There are different kinds of weight bias, stigma and discrimination. Take an Implicit Association Test to be aware of any bias you may have.

Be aware of physical limitations. People living with obesity may have limitations to what their body can do. Instead of a 5K, try suggesting a walk around the block.

Encourage (but don’t push) professional and social support. There are psychologists who specialize in obesity management as well as online support groups that offer expert advice and/or connect people living with obesity. The OAC offers group sessions where friends and family members can join to talk about health topics and support someone who is living with obesity.

Resources

The Obesity Action Coalition

Truth About Weight

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