Chasing Life With Dr. Sanjay Gupta | How We Think About Weight and Weight Loss
This is a guest post by WWSG exclusive speaker, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
If you’ve been paying attention to health news recently, you may have noticed a subtle but real shift in the way society discusses body weight. It started about 10 years ago with the body positivity movement, the idea that we should love our bodies at any size. But around this time, the American Medical Association also classified obesity as a disease. The medical community was divided, with some believing the classification would help reduce stigma, while others argued that it pathologized larger bodies.
These transformational changes picked up speed with the arrival of powerful and wildly popular new medications that have helped many people shed pounds.
We on the “Chasing Life” podcast team think it’s the perfect time to try to sort through some of these medical and cultural threads. That’s why we’re turning the spotlight on body weight in the coming season.
We’re not going to reveal the secret to losing weight “with one weird trick” or even tell you that you should necessarily shed pounds. In fact, our very first episode explores the real link between weight and health. I spoke to Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity medicine specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, about what our weight does and does not tell us about our health – and what she said might surprise you.
“I can’t just judge the book by its cover and assume that someone [who] is larger is unhealthy and someone who is lean is healthy,” Stanford told me, referring to a person’s size and BMI. “That’s the assumption that people make. I call that practicing street-corner medicine.”
She said she looks beneath the surface of the individual to assess their health – for example, with bloodwork and their functional ability – “because someone who’s lean may be very unhealthy, and someone who’s heavier may be healthier.”
Stanford’s approach embodies a new way for doctors to think about weight. It parallels the body positivity movement and the body neutrality movement, appreciating your body for what it can do. These cultural shifts have appeared to be nudging us all toward becoming more accepting of larger bodies without having to change them, as long as they are physiologically and functionally healthy.
And then came a twist: the widespread adoption of a powerful and effective new class of medications originally developed to treat type 2 diabetes. Those drugs include semaglutide (sold as Ozempic, Rybelsus and Wegovy) and tirzepatide (sold as Mounjaro and Zepbound) as well as the older liraglutide (sold as Victoza and Saxenda). It’s hard to overestimate their impact on popular culture – and on the bodies of those who take them.
After covering medical news for more than two decades, I can say the introduction of these medications feels different. As with Prozac in the late 1980s and Viagra in the late 1990s, the arrival of these medications appears to be pivotal, maybe even revolutionary.
That’s not to say some people don’t have unpleasant side effects or even, on occasion, very serious ones. Additionally, I should point out that when the drugs are stopped, the weight often returns, making these likely life-long drugs.
But even as we appear to be moving into a new phase of how we think about weight and weight loss in this country, there is still a fair amount of shame and stigma surrounding weight.
So where is the inflection point? When will we start to see these medications as tools and not a sign of failure? And can we get to the point where we can be successful at weight loss – or accept ourselves the way we are – without shame?
I don’t have any easy answers for you, but these are just some of the themes we are going to touch on and conversations we are going to have during the next season of “Chasing Life.” I hope you join us as we search for answers.