Improving the social health of higher weight people

Image: © Obesity Canada Groups4Health, social, isolation, BMI, obesity, higher weight, group program, therapy

In Australia, people of a higher weight – up to 67% of the population – are often targets of weight stigma.

Weight stigma includes ‘fat shaming’, derogatory comments and environmental barriers that create feelings of exclusion and leave people feeling unsupported.

A 2021 study of 1,245 Australians found that 56% of Australians had experienced weight stigma and 31% had experienced weight-based discrimination.

To address the social and psychological barriers to health often faced by higher weight people, an evidence-based group psychotherapy program called Groups 4 Health is being offered for free at the Australian National University (ANU), in Canberra.

Weight stigma can permeate all aspects of a person’s life, as highlighted by a 37-year-old woman, “We’ve got couches where we have our office work meetings and everyone sits on the couches. And I don’t fit. And I have trouble getting out of them because they’re low. It’s just distressing and embarrassing.”

Sometimes the discrimination is overt. A 29-year old woman advised, “The manager at my job told me that I had to lose weight because it was affecting my work. I work on the web, making websites available to people with disabilities. My weight is completely irrelevant. I was so stunned that she thought she could call me on that.”

Weight stigma is known to undermine engagement in healthy behaviours and has negative psychological and social consequences for the individual. It can lead to restricted dieting and binge eating, depression, anxiety and isolation.

Perhaps surprisingly, this stigma often comes from those closest to the person such as family and friends, and even healthcare professionals.

A 55-year-old man commented, “[my family] keep talking about me being fat and it’s just totally depressing. I go home. I feel sad. I feel lonely.”

Dr Joanne Rathbone, a social and health psychology researcher at ANU, said, “We know the Groups 4 Health program is as effective as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in reducing depression and has greater long-term success than CBT in addressing loneliness. We now want to see if people with higher weight can also benefit from this program.”

“The program consists of 5 group sessions that occur over 8 weeks. Participants will explore their social environment and learn how they can make the most of their current situation. They’ll be provided with tools to manage challenging groups in their lives, including those that might be a source of stigma and learn how to strengthen existing social networks,” explained Dr Rathbone.

The Groups 4 Health program - held at the Acton ANU campus - is open to anyone 18 years and older with a BMI of 30 or more. See if you’re suitable for the program by completing the online form.

The trial is led by ANU pychology experts Dr Joanne Rathbone, Associate Professor Tegan Cruwys, and Associate Professor Elizabeth Rieger; ANU medicine expert Clinical Professor Paul Dugdale, a primary health physician and Senior Specialist at Canberra Health Services’ Obesity Management Service; and consumer representative Dr Fiona Tito Wheatland.