Ahh, the annual physical. For some, a checkup with the primary care physician doesn’t seem like a big deal. Some tests, some notes and a boost presented with “See you next year!”
But for millions of Americans, including most of the 42% of adults who fall under “obesity” due to potentially inaccurate body mass index (BMI) standards, visiting a doctor can be filled with uncomfortable moments.
We don’t blame doctors, and we know that many treat patients compassionately, with targeted advice and in a body-neutral way. But that’s not the norm, according to a study published December 13, 2022 in the journal Family medicine. In it, the researchers say that in the majority of cases, doctors give patients weight loss advice that is more abstract than actionable, too vague to be beneficial and not always backed by science.
Ahead, learn more about how the researchers came to this conclusion, as well as what the scientists say healthcare professionals — and those they consult — should keep in mind.
Related: Why It’s Really Bad to Compliment Someone’s Weight Loss, According to a Dietitian
What This Weight Loss Study Revealed
A team of experts from the University of Oxford in England investigated 159 audio recordings of consultations between general practitioners and their patients who had a BMI in the ranges considered “obese”. Superficial advice was common, including advice that a person should “change their lifestyle a bit”. Only 20% of appointments included physicians offering advice on How? ‘Or’ What to actually accomplish the weight loss they recommended. (PS Here are 3 key habits for maintaining weight loss, because that’s also an important part of the conversation.)
Common suggestions included the following abstract advice, which aren’t actually backed by current science (and in some cases are blatantly wrong):
Eat less, move more
Just take the stairs
Pay attention to what you eat
Reduce your carbs
Use a calorie tracker app so you can monitor incoming and outgoing calories
Exercise as much as your joints allow
Make your own gluten-free flour as it won’t contain sugar (which is completely wrong, gluten is a protein, after all)
“Our analysis identifies that most clinicians do not provide effective advice, and so even if patients were to follow the advice, they would be unlikely to lose weight,” the researchers write in the journal, noting that the ” eat less, do more” angle was the back-up recommendation when other resources were not available.
Related: Study Finds Physical Activity, Not Weight Loss, Key to Reducing Health Risks
It is completely understandable that it is difficult to provide more personalized and nuanced advice. Because our current medical system focuses on treatment and disease rather than prevention, very little time during the medical school curriculum is spent on nutrition and physical activity. This is another great reason why it’s important to consult experts who specialize in these areas, such as dietitians and physical therapists. Additionally, physicians often lack the time to really learn about their patients’ habits and other external factors that could impact overall well-being. (For example, access to a safe place to exercise or having to work three jobs to pay the bills.) Not to mention that the field of research is constantly changing and it can be daunting to keep abreast of the latest best practices in chronic disease. prevention.
“Physicians need clear guidelines on how to opportunistically talk to obese patients about weight loss,” said Madeleine Tremblett, Ph.D., lead study author and qualitative researcher at the Nuffield Department. of Primary Care Health Sciences at the University of Oxford in England, said in a press release. “It can help them avoid amplifying stigmatizing stereotypes and provide effective support for patients who want to lose weight.”
A small study analyzing doctors’ conversations with patients reveals that much of the standard weight-loss advice is too vague to be helpful and, at times, downright inaccurate. It is important to note that this is a small snapshot of medical practices in one country and at one time, and many doctors and other healthcare professionals connect on a personal level and offer referrals to nutrition, exercise and community experts. advocacy.
While much more research is needed and broader conversations around medical school curriculum – and health care industry strategy as a whole – are needed, this research sheds light on the need for more talk about what can actually be favorable and fruitful for those looking to lose weight.
Since obesity is multifactorial and simply adhering to a restrictive diet (as long as you can hang on for life) isn’t effective, an individualized approach is best, the researchers say. Instead, they suggest a treatment strategy that includes:
Nutrition advice with a dietitian
Behavioral modifications focused on areas such as stress management and sleep
Lifestyle changes including personalized physical activity advice
Assistance to overcome systemic barriers, such as food insecurity
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