Home Health and Health Care Does Your Doctor’s Weight Play A Part In Their Weight Loss Advice?

Does Your Doctor’s Weight Play A Part In Their Weight Loss Advice?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Tied into yesterday’s post about what kind of care you want from your doctor, I remembered that Lisa from Lisa Johnson Fitness wrote a post a while back regarding whether or not an overweight doctor was likely to advise you about weight loss through organic means. I think this discussion is apropos, here:

A new study shows that medical doctors who are overweight are less likely to give out weight loss advice than doctors in the “normal” weight range. Is this a case of the pot not wanting the kettle to call it black?

I’ve been mulling this research for a few days now. I think overweight doctors doling out fitness and diet advice would actually be more likely to get through to a patient. They understand, perhaps more than a normal-weight doctor, how to approach someone who is overweight in a way that will cause the person to actually listen. Also, as a Pilates instructor who has struggled a bit with my own weight, I know my clients appreciate that I am “one of them.” They know I speak with compassion and in the spirit of helping, never with condescension.

The numbers in the study, published in the journal Obesity, are surprising. 30% of doctors with a BMI of 25 or less would recommend diet and exercise programs while only 18% of doctors with a BMI above 25 would recommend it. That’s a substantial difference, but the scarier part of the study for me is that the more overweight doctors are also more likely to prescribe pills for weight loss.

Even more startling to me: 93% of doctors would only diagnose obesity in their patients if the patient’s weight was greater than their own. Wow! So how many doctors are overweight? According to the study, 53% of docs are overweight or obese, only 11% lower than the general population. [source]

The Time Magazine article actually goes a bit more in depth with it:

It inspires confidence when a dentist has good teeth, or a hairstylist has a chic ‘do, or when the salesperson at a boutique has an immaculate sense of personal style. The same may be true of doctors who maintain a healthy weight — which may help explain why those who are overweight are less likely to broach the topic of weight loss with their patients.

In a study of 500 primary care physicians around the country, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that a doctor’s own size influenced how he or she cared for patients with weight problems. Overweight or obese physicians were less likely to discuss weight loss with heavy patients: only 18% of these doctors discussed losing weight with their patients while 30% of normal weight physicians did.

What’s more, the researchers found that 93% of doctors diagnosed obesity in their patients only if they believed their own weight was equal to or less than that of their patients; only 7% of doctors who believed their weight exceeded that of their patients diagnosed obesity.


The study builds on earlier work that analyzed how doctors’ own smoking habits affected their advice to patients; there, too, researchers found that physicians who lit up were less likely to recommend smoking cessation for their smoking patients, most likely because of the hypocritical nature of their telling patients to quit while they continued to puff away themselves.

But the results also shed light on the complexities of the doctor-patient relationship, especially concerning obesity, and suggest that anti-obesity efforts that focus nearly exclusively on patients may be too one-sided. Indeed, doctors are just as heavy as the rest of Americans: the Johns Hopkins study found that 53% of the physicians were overweight or obese, which tracks with the 64% of U.S. adults who fall in the same categories. [source]

For me, the first thing that comes to mind is that the doctors – the people with all the resources, access and medical education – have an obesity rate that is only 11% less than the general population. Just makes me wonder whether they’ve even got the answers… or maybe the answer can’t be found in a prescription.

What are your thoughts? Where does your doctor fall in the spectrum?

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Tawanda March 15, 2012 - 3:46 PM

This is so true. When I had a slim doctor she got on me about my weight all the time. I moved to VA and my new doctor was a slightly overweight man. Not a peep from him about weight loss.

Diandra March 16, 2012 - 5:02 AM

Well, it is one thing to know where the problem lies, and a completely different novel trying to fix said problem. Everyone who has ever tried to lose weight knows that.

I wonder whether the study has taken into consideration those physicians with a BMI < 25 who have struggled with their weight in the past. With the food habits in our Western culture, it is really difficult to stay in a healthy weight range, so I am tempted to think that the physicians who actually have got a healthy weight are actively working to keep it this way. Of course they may be more likely to say, "Well, I know it is tough, but DO IT."

Stephanie March 16, 2012 - 10:27 AM

I’ll be completely honest and say that I am more apt to listen to a doctor that is considered normal weight than an overweight doctor. I visited one doctor for a physical that told me I needed to lose weight, and the entire time I was thinking to myself “But YOU’RE bigger than ME!” Which is counter-productive of course, because sound advice is sound advice, no matter where it comes from. My OB/GYN is very consistent in checking on my weight and encouraging me to continue to lose it. It’s a lot easier (at least for me) to take what she says to heart because she is actively maintaining her weight in the normal range. It ain’t right I know….

Erika Nicole Kendall March 16, 2012 - 11:48 AM

I think it depends. I hear this a lot with people who work with personal trainers who are in less than optimal shape, too.

Are you going to a doctor for weight loss advice, or are you going for your regular check-up? Hell, WHO do you go to for weight loss advice?

Jame March 16, 2012 - 1:44 PM

My doctor (normal weight) gently encouraged me to lose weight by adding more exercise in a recent appointment. I haven’t had any serious issues, but I recently complained about hormonal ones so she thought weight loss plus the pill would be a good solution.

She has pictures of her riding her bike and hiking up at her office. She asks me about how much activity I get, since she knows I work at home. When my iron was low, she prescribed leafy greens in addition to iron supplements.

I feel more apt to trust her because she practices what she preaches and her facebook posts match up!

Erica December 18, 2012 - 4:14 PM

I am 49 years old and had a heart attack 2 days after Hurricane Sandy struck (on Halloween). I live in NYC and had no electricity like many people at the time. I am not overweight, do not have high blood pressure, I eat clean and work out consistently (with a personal trainer no less). Unfortunately, I have a family history of heart disease. Both grandfathers died of heart attacks in their mid 40’s and my parents both have heart disease. My cardiologist’s wife – also a doctor and marathon runner – had a heart attack in her 40’s (10 years ago). Having a doctor who advocates good health personally and professionally and who has a spouse with a similar form of genetic heart disease is very comforting to me and helps my morale. As a doctor, depending upon your specialty, physical apperance may be as important as skill and experience. Honestly, if my cardiologist was overweight, I would change doctors in a heart beat (pun intended). Now my dentist, I don’t care how fat she is but she can’t have jacked up teeth (fortunately, she looks fit and has great teeth). Health maintenance – and in my case survival – is hard enough. Your doctor should be a physical example of relatively good health. I think doctors advocating healthy weight loss during your regular check up go hand in hand. I have the same expectations of my personal trainer. When he asks me what I ate this week, I’m asking him what he’s eating and what his workout routine is for the week. You can’t be a fat ass and telling me to put down the cupcake.

Lee December 28, 2012 - 8:59 PM

My mom’s last doctor wasn’t fit by any means, but she said she felt a bigger connection with him than other doctors. She actually received the reverse treatment where the fit doctors hardly ever brought up a fit and healthy regimen.
The doctor I saw last for a check up was overweight. She answered any and every question I had about my own weight. I would go back to her if I needed anything else. She was very professional, knowledgeable, and shared her own personal struggle with getting fit. I want a doctor who can answer my questions and cares about my health.

Jess December 29, 2012 - 1:06 AM

I don’t have a general physician but my mom is an internist. She is also overweight. My mom taught me food principals very similar to Erika’s, and hell yeah I take her advice despite her issues with eating. It is one thing to have the knowledge and another to overcome the emotional baggage that causes the poor eating. But you know… I’m not sure if she gives nutrition advice to others the way she does for her kids.

Janine January 3, 2013 - 6:25 PM

Interesting. As someone who is going to school for a health-related field and who has a few friends in med school, I know how busy it is to be a health practicioner. It makes complete sense to me that a doctor’s personal fitness could take the back burner when they are dealing with their (really, really hard) job. The idea that you shouldn’t go to a doctor because they are ‘out of shape’ is abhorrent to me. It’s not for anyone to assume anyone’s abilities based on their body type, because someone could be heavy for a million reasons. It’s not my business and not my concern as long as they are a competent physician, which you’ll find out soon enough. Doctors are not
gods or superhumans, they are people and deserve the compassion you would give anyone.

Janine January 3, 2013 - 6:28 PM

Not that anyone really was implying this- I just felt like tossing my two cents in. For what it’s worth.

Ivy January 6, 2013 - 3:43 AM

Hello Everyone,

Erika I follow your blog regularly, ( I find it to be not only to be informative but inspirational), however this is my first time posting. This topic is of interest to me because I am an overweight doctor. I think Janine is spot on with regards to physicians putting personal fitness on the back burner to their jobs. Most of my weight gain was a direct result of working 24 hour shifts in the hospital 1 to 2 times a week in addition to the regular 8 to 5. My specialty doesn’t involve working with a great deal of patients, but if I had a patient whose weight negatively impacted their health I would speak up regardless of my size.

I didn’t look at the study you mentioned in detail but the other point I wanted to make is that during my four years of medical school very little instruction was given to us about weight loss. We were taught the importance of maintaining a healthy weight in order to prevent disease, but no instruction was given on how to actually accomplish this. Obviously I can’t speak for every doctor or assume this was the case at every medical school in the country, but I wonder if an overweight doctor’s reluctance to speak with patients about weight loss has anything to do with lack of knowledge in regards to medical education. Thinner physicians may be more inclined to encourage patients to lose weight based on their own personal experiences with diet and exercise as opposed to their training. I can say that as a patient, I have been told to lose weight by more than one doctor (both of which were thin), but beyond telling me to exercise and a referral to nutritionist, the advice stopped there.

Erika Nicole Kendall January 6, 2013 - 12:06 PM

You know what, you make an EXCELLENT point, one that I’ve never been able to understand in an in depth way because I’ve never been able to confirm just how much research and study time is dedicated to weight management. Wow.

angela February 2, 2013 - 4:13 PM

I think the overweight/obesity rate of doctors proves there is something very wrong with the food in our society. They have both high education and high income, 2 factors that correlate with lower probability of obesity, and yet they’re still trending with the general population. This isnt just a”personal responsibility” issue anymore.

Sunshyne Smith February 2, 2013 - 5:18 PM

I am so surprised by this study that 93% of doctors only diagnosis patients who weigh more than them.

ColdFusion March 19, 2013 - 8:55 PM

I had a fat doctor tell me I was overweight. Ugly too. I didn’t listen to her because I’m less than 8 percent heavier than I oughtta be.

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