Exploring obesity within the context of multiple co-occurring health, socioeconomic, environmental and cultural factors, and situating these within policy/jurisdictional structures specific to Indigenous populations (e.g., federal versus provincial health funding), can facilitate emerging opportunities for obesity management. These contexts highlight a tension that providers must navigate, between drivers of obesity embedded in social- and system-level inequities and protective factors that promote healing through relationships and culturally contextualized approaches to care. Healthcare professionals should consider the following contextual factors when providing obesity care for Indigenous peoples:
- Structural inequities (i.e., social and systemic in origin) are embedded in health, education, social services and other systems, and they maintain social disadvantage for a large segment of the Indigenous population. These inequities influence food security, for example, through lower wages perpetuated by inaccessible education and high food costs in urban and remote areas, or through limited access to activity-based resources at individual and community levels. Indigenous people have experienced systemic disadvantage throughout their lifespan and those of their family members, producing a cumulative effect on obesity. In Indigenous contexts, obesity is therefore deeply affected by responses to pervasive stressors, as individuals navigate social and systemic barriers to meeting their goals.
- Overwhelming stress from social (e.g., discrimination) and systemic exclusion (e.g., poor or absent primary healthcare) can disempower Indigenous people in maintaining healthy behaviours. Patients may appear to be resistant to healthcare recommendations, where together with healthcare providers they may come to feel fatalistic toward their capacity to address obesity. Healthcare professionals often interpret such patient incongruity with recommendations in a deficit lens, labeling it as patient non-compliance or non-adherence. This non-concordance, or seeming apathy, may actually be a sense of paralysis in the face of overwhelming stress.
- Exploration of the patient’s social reality can open opportunities for contextualized approaches to obesity management.
- Reflection on assumptions about seeming apathy may contextualize patient motivations, where deep exploration of one’s own perceptions, attitudes and behaviours toward Indigenous patients may uncover anti-Indigenous sentiment implicit in healthcare practices or systems.
- Validation of a patient’s experiences of inequity can empower both patients and providers to identify steps to address social factors that influence health behaviours.
- Culture and relationships facilitate learning of complex knowledge. The interaction of obesity with co-occurring structural factors represents complex knowledge that is critical for patients to gain deep understanding of their health. Non-Indigenous healthcare providers may have ways of knowing and doing that are inconsistent with Indigenous patient perspectives on health knowledge and how it should be exchanged. Obesity management in this context requires a longitudinal, relationship-centred approach that engages and explores interactions with co-existing factors to build both knowledge and trust, in a manner aligned with Indigenous principles for communication.
- Connection: When patients connect with healthcare providers around their co-occurring health needs, there are complex linkages between wider structures and their health. The therapeutic relationship may be critically supportive when knowledge is delivered in a relevant way and makes sense to the patient.
- Trust-building: Healing of the therapeutic relationship is itself fundamental to engaging and supporting patients within contexts of multi-generational trauma to explore complex intersections in relation to health and health behaviour change.
- Differing worldviews: Western concepts of healthy behaviours related to obesity management, including preferences for body size, activity and food, may be discordant with Indigenous perspectives. Patients may not identify with provider perspectives, and providers must not assume that patients share provider worldviews or principles around how to communicate health knowledge. Discordant perspectives may involve a distinct sense of locus of control, self-efficacy and modes for speaking about the pathways into and out of obesity. An Indigenous approach to knowledge exchange includes contextualizing knowledge within the world of the patient and employing a narrative-based and indirect approach to sharing knowledge.