In Canada, 17 million adults are living with obesity and many of them lack a proactive organization focused on individuals affected by overweight or obesity. That is until Priti Chawla founded Obesity Matters, a non-profit organization geared towards empowering those who struggle with weight-related issues by changing the dialogue around obesity.
In the third installment of our Making Impact Podcast series, ODAIA’s co-founder, Helen Kontozopoulos met with Priti Chawla, Founder and Executive Director of Obesity Matters to discuss roadblocks for people living with obesity and their goal to overcome challenges by empowering stakeholders through education.
Founded in 2020, Obesity Matters aims to create a future of weight acceptance that prioritizes health and happiness. For Priti, the world of obesity is no new concept having been involved in it for 15 years by running educational programs for a weight management clinic, and volunteering for Obesity Canada. Having also had weight bias and discrimination in her own life, Priti says “I know exactly what the struggles of the community are firsthand. And my goal was to build an organization led by individuals with the same lived experience.”
In creating the non-profit organization, Priti unearthed a key issue facing those with obesity is gaps in patient care and advocacy, due to the pervasiveness of weight stigma in society. “Whether it's in the workplace, in the media, in education, or even within a circle of family and friends, weight bias and fat-shaming can have a serious impact.”
This weight bias unfortunately also extends into the Canadian healthcare system, “where obesity is still not recognized by the government of Canada as a chronic disease.” Over decades, this has led to countless individuals not receiving the proper care they deserve. One of the ultimate goals for Obesity Matters is to “fill the advocacy void and push for better policy.”
The list of key stakeholders for Obesity Matters is a long one. It includes healthcare providers, family, friends, employers, policymakers, media, and various corporations. Though the list is extensive, targeting all of them is an important move to promote change by working together. That being said, the most crucial stakeholders to Priti are the community members who are living with overweight and obesity.
In March 2021, Obesity Matters launched their “Eat, Play, Love: Spotlight Series” as an interactive event with multidisciplinary speakers who share a passion for creating change with the community impacted by obesity. This awareness program acted like a funnel to bring people into the “home” community. “These were mainly people who are living with excess weight, going through struggles wanting to lose weight, wanting to have better health outcomes, wanting to get access to treatment.” After running 18 episodes in 2021, their reach spanned more than 2 million individuals.
“Based on the feedback we received, we soon realized that many of these individuals were now looking for actionable solutions, such as live workshops to show them how [to deal with obesity], tools and resources that they could use to manage their health better,” Priti says. This led to the development of the “Eat Better, Live Better” workshop series and the idea for other future hybrid events covering a wide range of topics from sleep to self-love. Through these workshops, Obesity Matters is able to activate the aforementioned list of stakeholders and beyond.
It is no secret that those living with obesity are externally stigmatized but more often than not, “it’s the people themselves living with excess weight [that] are their [own] worst enemy.” The internalized stigma is one of the major roadblocks within the community. “We really want the Canadians who are living with obesity to feel empowered. We don't want this internalized stigma to really affect them in their health outcomes, or in their goal, or in their journey toward leading a healthier life. It's not about size, it's about your health,” Priti says.
Another roadblock comes from the healthcare system and the lack of activation it offers to the community. Doctors themselves struggle with an attitude shift, typically prescribing an oversimplified diet and exercise regimen. Instead, doctors should be approaching these individuals with a customized plan, putting into consideration genetics, hormones, family history, and psychological factors. They “need to get out of this damaging message of eat less, move more, and come up with more evidence-based messages.” Lastly, the impact of commercial weight-loss culture doesn’t aid in destigmatization. Rather, diet culture creates traps for people to fall into, making for a negative downward spiral. As Priti puts it, “we want our stakeholders [to] help debunk the myth that obesity is a lifestyle issue, and help us achieve our vision to create a future of weight acceptance, where health and happiness are a priority.”
As Obesity Matters continues their work, its vision is to “grow our community, we want to have open conversations and we want to offer support in a safe space, where no one is discriminated against because of their size.” The next step for Obesity Matters is to “adopt partnerships with innovators, be it in virtual medicine, AI, virtual reality, or with influencers and celebrities, who can further disseminate the message of self-love.” Other areas of importance include policy changes within the healthcare system so that evidence-based treatments are readily available to those who need them, regardless of their race, sex, socioeconomic status, or any other factor.
This is the third installment of ODAIA’s Making Impact Podcast series. We will have more interviews with other thought leaders who are using cutting-edge technology to innovate in the life sciences. Listen to our previous episode with Albert Tai from Hypercare to learn more about how they became part of the healthcare communication solution by creating powerful software that saves lives.