Blog written by Ian Patton, Director of Advocacy and Public Engagement. 

For 5 years I have had some amazing opportunities to contribute on behalf of individuals living with obesity as a patient advocate.  I am proud of the work that Obesity Canada has done and I am excited at the potential for positive change. However, the advocacy work so often feels like trying to run in quicksand. We are fighting to have obesity understood as a chronic disease in a system and society that has deeply rooted beliefs that it is simply a self-inflicted condition. In a meeting with my Member of Parliament I said I wanted the government to recognize obesity as a chronic disease. In response he asked me “What will recognition of a disease do? Why does that matter?” At the time, I did not have an appropriate response. 

When you think about all of the things we can be advocating for when it comes to obesity it is easy to get overwhelmed at the scope of change that needs to happen and what is a priority.  Is it most important to improve access to treatments? We have treatments that are evidence-based but not great access for Canadians. Improving access would be huge! Let’s get to work.

But wait, obesity is a complex disease. No one treatment is “the right” treatment for everyone so which one(s) should we focus on?  Should we fight for access to multidisciplinary teams or health professionals trained in obesity management? Do we fight to improve access to cognitive behavioral therapy? Medications? Or surgery? 

Hold up, what about weight bias and discrimination?  I would argue that weight bias is the single biggest barrier to health for Canadians living with obesity. Weight bias is prevalent, debilitating and costly. Okay, let’s shift our focus to weight bias. 

However, weight bias is it’s own beast of a topic.  Do we focus on educating health professionals and trying to reduce weight bias in healthcare? What about weight bias in the workplace, education, in media, or the public? What about internalized weight bias? 

Living with obesity has many challenges, especially around accessibility and participating in society. Should we be focusing our efforts on fighting to improve accessibility and supporting individuals living with obesity so they can live their best life as active members of society? 

Obesity science is relatively young compared to other chronic diseases.  While our understanding of the disease is improving, there is a need to invest in research and innovation for obesity treatment and prevention. Is this where we need to focus? 

This list is overwhelming. Where to start? What will have the most impact? What is doable? I honestly do not have the answer. What I do know is that the work we have done in all of these areas has come up against a barrier, a pit of quicksand that slows us down.  That quicksand is the perception of obesity.  That it is not a disease but a personal failing, that people do it to themselves and should fix it themselves. How can we improve access to treatments for something not viewed as a disease? Weight bias and discrimination are almost justified because “people should take responsibility”.  Accessibility, research dollars, training for health professionals, none of that can happen to the degree that is needed without disease recognition.  

It is clear now what I should have said to my MP. Having governments recognize obesity as a chronic disease is a small but vital step in being able to improve all of the areas listed above. Having governments align with the overwhelming scientific evidence and the experts helps to change the narrative and is the stick of dynamite that will spark an avalanche of change. Not to mention, health policy must be based on evidence, not misinformed personal beliefs – it is the only acceptable way to govern. 

Today is World Obesity Day, a chance to raise awareness and an opportunity to take action! 

Right now, with 2 minutes of your time you can make a difference! Follow the link and join our campaign calling on governments to recognize obesity as a chronic disease. Simply add your name and postal code and a letter will be sent to your elected officials bringing this important issue to their attention.  Actions like this will open doors and dialogue that will advance the efforts to improve the lives of individuals living with obesity, so please join us! 

Be sure to share this campaign with your networks as well, getting family, friends, colleagues and peers to sign on amplifies the message. The more letters sent, the more they will have to listen!