Obesity in the Digital Age: Let's "Scale" Back the Misinformation

This article addresses the ongoing obesity epidemic. It comments on how the internet is riddled with harmful and misleading health information when it comes to weight loss advice and discusses basic steps nurses can take to to begin their weight loss journeys. Nurses General Nursing Article

Updated:   Published

There is no question that in today's digital age, the sheer quantity of health information available online can be confusing to sift through. With ever-increasing rates of obesity in the West, having trustworthy information on how to not only lose weight, but also successfully maintain weight loss is of paramount public health importance. Type a quick search into Google along the lines of "how to lose weight,” and one is met with a litany of different fad diets, workout programs, and nutritional supplements that claim to be the magic answer to your weight management woes. And unfortunately, some of these tips for weight control are not only just plain wrong, they are also potentially dangerous. Ever heard of a "healthy,” "gut restoring" juice cleanse? Well, I have, too. And for your sake as well as mine, I implore you NOT to do it!

This need for better weight loss guidance is even more prominent now that we have started to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. One Harvard University study published in January of 2022 found that about 50% of people surveyed responded that "yes,” they had gained weight during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Add those extra pounds onto an already overweight/obese population, and I'm sure you can imagine how dire of a situation this has become since we know that obesity increases the risk for virtually all chronic health problems, including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and more.

So, how can we help ourselves and our patients?

Firstly, skip Dr. Google today. Second, call your primary care provider (PCP) to make an appointment. As a nurse practitioner who currently works in primary care, I love when patients of mine come in requesting to specifically talk about weight management. And as an aside, if for some reason your PCP doesn't feel like engaging in a conversation about this, then I would say it's about time to get a new doctor.

But getting back to the point. Your PCP is your starting point for any and all of your health concerns. Obesity is a serious medical problem, and this is something that a PCP can help you with. Most PCPs will generally recommend a healthy diet and exercise program, and of course, this is the mainstay of "treatment,” regardless of whatever other interventions or therapies are deemed appropriate for you. Your PCP can also refer you to a nutritionist or dietician to discuss what exact diet modifications may be suggested to help you achieve your weight goals. If all your PCP says is, "eat more fruits and veggies, increase lean protein, and limit carbs,” they are really doing you a disservice even though what they are saying is technically sound weight loss advice. This is because those suggestions are going to look different for people individually since each person is unique in their dietary preferences, budget, and culture, all of which affect food choices. Your PCP, in conjunction with a licensed nutritionist or dietician, is therefore going to be the best resource in formulating a realistic, sustainable, and unique eating plan for you. Furthermore, I always ask patients do you know how to read a food label? Do you know what a basal metabolic rate is? Do you understand the concept of a calorie deficit and why this is important to achieve and maintain weight loss? Filling these knowledge gaps is so incredibly important in empowering people to take charge of their weight loss journeys. And if you are reading some of these questions, even as a nurse, and find yourself saying, "I don't know,” you are not alone.

Some second line, additional weight-loss therapies may include medication therapies that can help suppress hunger through various pharmacodynamic means. Phentermine, for instance, is a commonly used stimulant for this purpose. Some anti-hyperglycemics indicated for type two diabetes management, like semaglutide are also used off-label for weight loss purposes. Beyond medication, there are, of course, several bariatric surgeries that can be considered, but these are generally used as a last resort depending on the patient. Your PCP will help you decide what interventions beyond a healthy lifestyle may be safe for you to try. If your PCP office does not have some of these more advanced medical services on site, they will likely be able to refer you to a medical weight loss clinic that specializes in treating obesity. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with obesity, I encourage you and/or them to call a primary care doctor. While the internet may be able to provide you with some legitimate weight loss advice, it is littered with information that, in many ways, overcomplicates weight loss, even for us nurses who have excellent health literacy and pride ourselves on being able to understand and communicate health concepts to our friends, families, and patients. At the end of the day, in order to lose weight, you need to maintain a calorie deficit through a combination of eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise, and the best place to seek out formal advice for what this will look like for you as an individual will be at your PCP office, at least as a starting point.

The health of the public (nurses included) has much to gain by losing some weight, so let's scale back our utilization of the misinformation online and start some meaningful conversations with our healthcare providers, all while setting great examples for our patients so that collectively, our health will benefit!


Health Risks of Overweight & Obesity

COVID-19 pandemic and weight gain in American adults: A nationwide population-based study

Healthy Lifestyle Weight loss - Counting calories: Get back to weight-loss basics

Prescription Medications to Treat Overweight & Obesity

Specializes in Former NP now Internal medicine PGY-3.
9 minutes ago, JKL33 said:

I asked the question because while I would never endorse keto diet, I do recommend lower carb, rationale being that people aren't overeating broccoli (and if they are its of little caloric consequence)--they're overeating carbs, which is very easy to do.

Yes, and it takes a LOT more to burn calories than people think. I was guilty of it until I started keeping better track. We feel so busy (and we are)--we just aren't doing much that really burns calories a lot of the time. I do feel bad for people about this, too. There are numerous different jobs people do that are busy, stressful, degrees of responsibility--stay busy all day, but actually burning a significant amount of calories that would typically be associated with actual exercise?--NO. But then what stinks even more is that many of us are so done at the end of a work day, it takes a significant amount of determination to even think of actual exercise.

People also don't want to hear of a 1200-1400 calorie recommendation for weight loss. Because of the above reasons--they don't feel like they eat much (hear this allllllll day long) and they feel like they are very physically active. But the numbers just aren't going to allow for 2k, 3K+++ calories packed in/24hrs when we are just walking from here to there or sitting at a desk getting up every now and then (or other busy but not truly physically vigorous things people do during their days).

True. I do low carb in general. Eat a lot of keto labeled stuff but not actually trying for keto. But it’s got a lot of fiber which is nice and little to no carb. Mostly vegetarian based food but I’m not vegetarian. It was hard at first but as with all habits gets easier. 

Specializes in orthopedic/trauma, Informatics, diabetes.
Tegridy said:

I think we should send obese people to weight loss camp to lose weight. I would sign up for it myself. 

That's not the answer. Lifestyle change is the best for long term weight loss.