Social, Economic, and Health Impact of Obesity

Obese people are often treated disparagingly by the medical community, a contention not only made by obese individuals but by members of the medical professions themselves.

by Cheryl Ann Borne Patient Advocate

The Stigma of Obesity: Humiliation is Hard to Shed

As a child, the start of a new school year was my least favorite time of the year. A summer filled with swimming pools and family outings and friendships would be replaced with homework and teachers and classmates. School is not the most nurturing of places when you're a fat kid.

Worst of all was the weigh-in. Every single September there would be one day when teacher would form two lines: one for boys and one for girls, and we would fall into our places alphabetically by last name. On that day every September I wished that either I had missed school or that my last name began with "Z." I envied my (fat) best friend Susan, whose last name began with "W." My last name began with "F" putting me near the front of the line.

One by one we would step onto the scale as the school nurse (in grammar school) or the gym teacher (in middle school and high school) called out our weights to be recorded. Once your weight was recorded you left the room. All of the girls standing in line behind me would hear my weight. That is why I envied Susan on this day. Lucky Susan whose last name began with "W" put her at the very end of the line.

In the 6th grade one of those nasty little girls told the boys my weight. I remember the way it happened: We were engrossed in our reading assignments and so the classroom was utterly silent. It was the kind of stillness where one might believe you actually could hear a pin drop. Then with the roar of a thunder clap that jars you from sleep, my classmate Mike's booming voice breaks the peace and quiet. He said only two words, meant for me, "142 pounds!!"

I hated the 6th grade.

The Consequences of Morbid Obesity

When considering the negative effects of morbid obesity a person might be quick to point out (and accurately so) the physical problems obese people frequently have. Certainly health issues are a concern as the risk for heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure are among the illnesses the morbidly obese are at greater risk for.

The medical expenditures to address the health issues that generally accompany obesity are equally troublesome and undesirable.

But these are not the only problems that morbidly obese people face.

Obese people are often treated disparagingly by the medical community, a contention not only made by obese individuals but by members of the medical professions themselves.

In addition, there are the psychological effects of ridicule that accompany morbid obesity such as depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Let's look at each of these issues in brief.

Obesity-Related Illnesses and Death

Morbid obesity adversely effects normal body functions and can result in serious illness. Not only can life span be shorted but the quality of life is often compromised as well.

Among the health risks associated with morbid obesity is heart disease. People who are severely obese are 6 times as likely as normal-weight individuals to develop heart disease. They are 40 times more likely than normal-weight people to have a sudden death. An increased burden on the heart can lead to early development of heart failure.

Obese people have high blood pressure much more often than normal-weight people. High blood pressure can promote heart disease and lead to stroke, kidney damage, and hardening of the arteries. Cholesterol levels are often elevated among the severely obese as well.

Obese people are 40 times more likely than normal-weight people to develop type II diabetes. Elevated blood sugar leads to damage to tissues throughout the body, and diabetes is the fourth most prevalent cause of death in the United States. Diabetes can cause adult-onset blindness, kidney failure, and is the cause for over half of all amputations.

High Cost of Care for the Morbidly Obese

A study published in the 2005 International Journal of Obesity found that health care costs in 2000 were twice as much for morbidly obese adults than normal-weight adults. Costs resulted from greater number of office visits, outpatient care, in-patient care, and prescription drugs. Total expenditures related with excess body weight exceeded eleven billion dollars in the year 2000.

The Obese Treated Poorly by Health Practitioners

In addition (and unfortunately), the morbidly obese are often viewed harshly by medical professionals. Half of the women who visited doctors because of excess weight issues reported that they felt they had been treated poorly. Both doctors and nurses verify this contention, having reported that they often believe the morbidly obese are lazy, unsuccessful, and non-compliant. Almost one-quarter of nurses stated they were "repulsed" by morbidly obese patients, and doctors and nurses both stated that they viewed and treated the morbidly obese differently.

Poor Emotional Health of Morbidly Obese Persons

Many people who are overweight are the targets for criticism and ridicule by peers. These harsh behaviors can propagate depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

A 1991 study showed that obese people believe they are physically unattractive, dislike being seen in public, think other people are making harsh comments about their weight, and feel discriminated against in the workplace.

Another study focused on the stigma of obesity found:

  • Being obese carries a social stigma. Nearly all of the participants, 72 of 76, reported they had experienced humiliation and discrimination related to their weight.

  • Being obese affects personal identity. Nearly half of the study participants report poor mental and emotional health, including depression, related to their weight.

  • Obese persons feel misunderstood by health care providers. More than 25% of the participants report they have gone to great (and unhealthy) lengths to lose weight. They feel they are being judged and victimized for a condition that is out of their control.

As obesity rates soar worldwide reaching near epidemic proportions, so too is discrimination and bias against obese people. It is projected that overweight and obese people will likely total 80% of the adult population by 2020 and more than 1 in 5 children will be obese. The impact of our growing girth as a nation has social, economic, and health consequences that are alarming.

Cheryl Ann Borne
Meet Our Writer
Cheryl Ann Borne

Cheryl Ann Borne, writing as My Bariatric Life, is a contributing writer and Paleo recipe developer. Cheryl is an award-winning healthcare communications professional and obesity health advocate who has overcome super obesity and it’s related diseases. She publishes the website, and microblogs on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Cheryl is also writing her first book and working on a second website.