Jan 17, 2023
Ask an Equip Provider: What Do I Do if My Patient Says They Want to Lose Weight?
Nearly half of all New Year’s resolutions involve weight loss. This isn’t terribly surprising given the inundation of diet and fitness-related messaging at the beginning of January, but it can still be a challenging subject for healthcare professionals to navigate. As the new year marches on, providers may be hearing from patients who want to meet certain weight loss goals in the coming months, goals that—at least on the surface—are grounded in a desire for better health.
But, unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. Not only do most diets fail, setting people up to feel a sense of shame and failure, but dieting for , and . What’s more, many people’s weight loss goals emerge from internalized weight bias, which a range of psychological and physical issues.
That said, weight loss isn’t inherently bad in all circumstances. So as a practitioner, how can you best support patients who express a desire to lose weight? Dr. Lauren Hartman, Medical Director at Equip, answered some of the most common questions providers have on this complex topic.
I usually don’t think it is beneficial to recommend weight loss, due to all of the potential negative outcomes that can result. However, weight loss is not always harmful—if it’s a means to another end, like cardiovascular or mobility goals. In these cases, it’s best to work toward the actual health goal rather than weight loss, though weight loss might be a “side effect” of these efforts. As practitioners, what we can do is aim to partner with our patients to better understand their concerns and goals.
If a patient says they want to lose weight without it being tied to another specific health goal, use it as an opportunity to dispel long-standing myths that equate “health” and “weight,” and share the harm being done by diet culture. It is also an opportunity to discuss behaviors and goals that are healthy but not weight-related, like joyful movement, eating regular and balanced meals, or sitting at a table for meals.
Yes, it is important to try. I’d suggest starting from a place of curiosity and hearing from the patient about why they are interested in weight loss. Here, it can be helpful to acknowledge the years of mixed messages that someone may have received about weight loss, whether from social media, family members, friends, or the medical community.
It is also important to make the person feel that we are not judging or shaming their intention, but rather helping them to understand the medical and psychological harms of “weight loss” as a goal. Some of the medical harms of weight loss as a goal are lowering your heart rate, developing a heart arrhythmia, vomiting (which can lead to electrolyte imbalance and internal bleeding), lightheadedness and fainting, and osteopenia or osteoporosis, among others. Some of the psychological harms are stress, anxiety, depression, mood instability, lack of concentration, self-harm, and suicide.
No. Childhood and adolescence is a critical time of growth and development. This is the time that a person’s brain, heart, bones, and all the organs in the body are developing. In order for this to happen in a safe way, they need to be adequately nourished. Losing weight at a time when the body has high metabolic needs and is requiring a lot of nutrition can result in significant medical consequences.
If a patient insists that their child lose weight, I would use it as an educational opportunity. I would talk with parents and families about how that adolescents whose parents talked with them about weight loss are more likely to engage in dieting, unhealthy weight-control behaviors, and binge eating.
I would try to shift the focus with the parent from their child losing weight to them developing a long-term healthy relationship with food and their body. I would encourage the things that we know help achieve that, such as having frequent family meals, avoiding diets, and doing joyful movement.
This is a tough question, since I wouldn’t recommend guidelines or resources for weight loss.
Given that someone can quickly move from weight loss to a place of medical instability, I would recommend that they check in regularly with their doctor for medical monitoring. I would discuss with them warning signs of medical compromise such as lightheadedness or fainting, fatigue, cold intolerance, abdominal bloating, and lack of a period in those with ovaries.
Equip is a virtual eating disorder treatment program helping families recover from eating disorders at home. Equip’s holistic, data-driven, gold-standard care program is delivered by a team of five care professionals, giving families confidence they’re providing the best opportunity for progress and lasting recovery.