Dietetics Professor Encourages Students to Challenge Weight Stigma

Not long after coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic hit the news, phrases such as “quarantine 15” and “fattening the curve” began popping up on social media.

A quick hashtag search of these phrases—a reference to weight gained during stay-at-home orders—turns up thousands of posts, many of them “before and after” memes and at-home workouts designed to help stem weight gain.

The content, most of it created for lighthearted laughs, highlights the country’s fixation on diet culture, which can be harmful to many but particularly for marginalized identities, says Emma Laing, PhD, RDN, LD, a clinical associate professor and director of dietetics in the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

“Poking fun about gaining weight perpetuates the idea that thinner bodies are more disciplined, healthier, and more worthy of attention, and this is simply untrue,” Laing says. “The thin ideal standards of beauty are unrealistic for people who are genetically larger.”

Another hidden message is the assumption that people have the privilege of focusing on health goals during the pandemic, Laing says. The messages also ignore critical issues such as socioeconomic status, food insecurity, and compromised air and water quality that can lead to stress and chronic illness, she adds.

“Many individuals have had drastic changes to their work demands, are experiencing financial hardships, or have legitimate concerns for their safety, so concerns about healthful eating or exercise might not be taking precedence,” Laing says.

Preoccupation with diet culture is an emerging topic in the dietetics field, one that’s shifting how nutrition professionals view weight and body image.

Many professionals, including Laing, entered the field because they wanted to do their part in combating obesity.

“During my dietetics education, we were instructed to help people lose weight,” Laing says. “However, the field is evolving to a place where body kindness, social justice, diversity, and inclusion are shifting this paradigm and it’s important that students have exposure to this discussion.”

Even before the pandemic had spread to the United States, Laing’s students were learning about weight-inclusive care, which prioritizes well-being over weight and having access to nonstigmatizing health care.

They discuss how dieting and weight stigma can lead to harmful effects, such as repeated cycles of weight loss and regain, reduced self-esteem, and disordered eating behaviors.

Students also learn the traditional weight-normative approach, with an emphasis on body weight in defining health and disease management, including diet, exercise, and behavior change.

“While weight-normative strategies—pursuing weight loss to improve health—elicit long-term successes for some individuals, many are unable to maintain this,” Laing says. “Using body weight alone as a measure of success can backfire, particularly if indicators like blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels improve regardless of changes in weight.”

Laing’s students, primarily dietetics and nutritional sciences majors, also address weight bias in health care and the psychological stress it can cause patients.

“Stressors caused by any type of discrimination, such as weightism, sexism, and racism, perpetuate fat-phobia and chronic illness,” she says. “Students need to ask themselves how useful they will feel as a practitioner if patients avoid coming to your office because they fear being shamed due to their weight.”

Laing says it’s important for students to think critically about the potential benefits or harm of dieting for weight loss and then figure out for themselves where they fall on this continuum of treatment approaches.

“I want students to feel comfortable with the discomfort of challenging diet culture and understanding that the concept of health includes mental health as well as other aspects beyond simply body size,” she says.

Regardless of where they stand on these approaches, Laing encourages her students to eliminate any external messages that make them feel guilty or negative about how their bodies look.

“Fill your news feed with body-positive images that encourage self-compassion, particularly during this time,” Laing says. “Amplifying the messages from underrepresented health professionals on social media, directly from those who have lived experience, is also important to broaden students’ cultural awareness and provide a space that’s inclusive of the many ways we can approach health.”

If a person is uncomfortable with how their body has changed over the last few months, Laing suggests seeking guidance from an RD who can help them achieve wellness goals.

At the University of Georgia, students can access nutrition counseling through Dining Services, the University Health Center, or the ASPIRE Clinic. They also can become involved with the BeYou Peer Educator program, which helps to promote body positivity on campus.

“Developing eating and activity habits that are enjoyable and best support overall health should be the primary goal for those who are able,” she says.

— Source: University of Georgia