Today’s guest post comes from my Mexican friend and colleague, Verónica Vázquez Velázquez, PhD, Co-founder and President of Obesidades.
Is obesity a single disease or are they several diseases with common clinical manifestations? Science is trying to answer this, but every one living with obesity has their personal definition.
In Mexico, more than 80 million children, teenagers and adults live with overweight or obesity (55% of children from 0 to 11 years, 44% of teenagers and 74% of adults, from a total of 126 million inhabitants). This means that most Mexican people live with abnormal or excessive body fat that may impair their health.
For some, obesity is merely living in a large body, but for others, this is a disease that leads to other diseases and has alienated us from our work, social and love lives. For many, this also means living under the critical and biased eye of physicians, relatives, friends or strangers, who think that “this is our fault”. In reality, obesity results from a series of factors, some that can be controlled/treated and others that we have not chosen (such as biology, genetics and the environment).
I remember talking with Dr Sharma in July 2020 and can´t forget his words: “What makes you angry about what is happening in Mexico with obesity? What can you do about it? Whatever it is, make it important and manageable. First, get together friends who think alike and understand obesity. Then, little by little, you will add people to spread knowledge and advocate for change. If you feel passionate about it, just do it. It does not have be perfect, it just has to be good”.
This is why we founded Obesidades (Spanish plural for obesity), to give voice to those interested in understanding and addressing obesity.
We are a non-profit organization incorporated in Mexico in 2020 by a psychologist/patient in treatment, a bariatric surgeon and a physician/patient in treatment. Our goal is to create a community that includes people living with obesity, health professionals, organizations and authorities, all joined together for changing the narrative around obesity and its treatment.
Primary prevention is important, but clearly many of us will, at some point, require access to health services offering an individualized biopsychosocial approach, incorporating early diagnosis and evidence-based treatments that includes strategies to sustain the treatment in the long term.
All of this may seem complicated. Nonetheless, we can start by changing the narrative around obesity and its treatment, as we now know how harmful weight bias, negative stereotypes, stigma, and discrimination against people living with obesity really are.
The new obesity narrative should include awareness, evidence-based education, training for health professionals based on an empathetic and compassionate approach and should place the person living with obesity right at its core.
What have we achieved?
To date, our Obesidades community includes more than 10,000 healthcare professionals, people living with obesity, family members, friends and people interested in looking at obesity from a different perspective. We work through committees, social networks, and discussion groups to put the topic on the table and offer evidence-based information in Spanish, so that we can join forces.
We began a national multi-center study in Mexico on attitudes, knowledge and stigma among the general population and healthcare professionals. We launched an awareness campaign named “Weight stories”, through which we emphasize the damage of weight stigma, and we make people aware that obesity is a disease impacting each person in a different way. Also, we created a treatment finder (with healthcare professionals, public and private hospitals and clinics) to help people living with obesity find a safe, ethical and professional place to initiate or continue treatment.
Where are we going?
Our work has begun, and we will not stop until we achieve our goals, i.e.:
1. Obesity is recognized and treated as a chronic and multi-factorial disease. Accepting this truth is not easy, but we want to be there for those in doubt, with evidence-based information, provided in a simple and compassionate way.
2. Healthcare professionals are trained for obesity management. To reduce weight stigma in the medical practice, so that every Mexican is offered adequate treatment.
3. Stigma and discrimination are recognized as harmful factors that need to be eliminated. Many people are not aware of the damage of their negative comments, jokes, and actions. If there is someone not sure about how to help, this may be a good start.
4. Verbal and visual narrative is changed. Educate the general population, authorities and associations about the use of people-first language, as well as including fair and dignified images of people living with overweight.
5. Access is offered to evidence-based and long-term treatment. If we get rid of weight and obesity treatment stigma and negative assumptions, we may reduce the time it takes before talking to a health professional about our weight and health, thereby preventing us from getting sicker every day.
Although only two years have elapsed, there is already much more to see from Obesidades. This is a good fight, a good cause, and a good team. We can be a bridge and an ally to connect different countries from Latin America, Hispanic people who are also struggling with access to more knowledge and better treatments.
We are thankful for the pathway laid out by the World Obesity Federation, Obesity Canada, ConscienHealth, Obesity Action Coalition, Global Obesity Patient Alliance, Obesity UK, European Association for the Study of Obesity, European Coalition for People living with Obesity, and Asociación Bariátrica Hispalis, all of whom have taught us to never give up, no matter how difficult the path may look.
“We with obesity live in a world that reminds us of it. We know the impact this has on our health. Many of us try to take care of it on a daily basis, but sometimes the disease is stronger than us, it defeats our strategies, our will. That is why we deserve empathy and treatment” Cristina, 47 years old.
Verónica Vázquez Velázquez, PhD
Mexico City, Mexico
About the author: Verónica Vázquez Velázquez, PhD in Psychology, is president of Obesidades. She is also a clinical psychologist at the Obesity and Eating Disorders Clinic of the National Institute of Medical Sciences and Nutrition Salvador Zubirán (INCMNSZ) in Mexico since 2000. Professor at different universities, she has published more than 45 scientific papers and book chapters and has co-edited the “Obesities Manual: An opportunity to improve the health of your patient”. She has 21 years of clinical experience with patients living with obesity and their families, in the creation of psychoeducational interventions, in the training of healthcare professionals and in clinical research. Email: email@example.com