Obesity affects more than 2 out of 5 people in our country; yet people living with this misunderstood disease continue to face weight bias, struggle alone in their efforts to lose and maintain their weight and lack access to comprehensive medical care.

World Obesity Day is on March 4, and this year’s theme is “Every Body Needs Everybody.” Changing how obesity is viewed, prevented and treated, will take everyone working together. 

In late 2020, Novo Nordisk collaborated with ten Public Relations students from NYU’s School of Professional Studies on an obesity case study that tackled the challenge of changing the obesity narrative. We recently reconnected with two of the students, Cassie Buontempo and Mirhan Tariq, for their reflections on what they learned over the course of the semester, how their perspectives have evolved and their message to others—urging us all to join the movement to change the conversation and change care. 

How did your experience tackling the “obesity challenge” impact your perception of the disease?

Cassie: The pivotal moment for me was meeting Patty Nece, a person living with obesity, and hearing firsthand about the emotional toll this disease took on her and everything she had to navigate to manage her weight and confront biases every day. I was inspired by her journey: from facing weight bias as a child to overcoming every obstacle to later become a federal attorney in Washington D.C. and the award-winning advocate she is today—fighting for the rights of people with obesity as the Chairwoman of the patient advocacy group Obesity Action Coalition (OAC).  I gained valuable information about healthcare barriers and the science behind weight gain, but all of that education truly hit home when I put myself in Patty’s shoes. I left that experience with a renewed understanding of the importance of listening and a determination to do my part to change the narrative around weight, health and care. 

It was also important, as an international class, for us to discuss using “people first” language through a global lens. A word that may not be offensive in one culture, can be in another – the words we use matter.

Mirhan: While working on the project, we were presented with a large amount of information and data on how multiple factors work against people navigating weight issues, such as food accessibility, cultural factors, healthcare coverage, etc. It’s simply not as cut and dry as “eat healthier; move more.” The in-depth education I got while working on this project really helped me understand these elements better and change my perspective on weight management as a process.

I’ve also reformed my verbiage regarding this issue. Dr. Holly Lofton, our medical lead on this project, told us how the words “obese” and “obesity” have a negative connotation for patients and are often used to assign blame rather than assist them in their journey.

Did anything you learn surprise you?

One thing that really resonated with me is when I learned about the “wheel.” The wheel is an endless cycle people go through to manage their weight. You get motivated, you’re doing great and then you hit a plateau, give up and crash. Then you start all over again. It also shows us that just because someone looks a certain way now, doesn’t mean they haven’t or aren’t still grappling with weight management issues. And there are many reasons above just willpower which make losing weight and keeping it off so challenging. This cycle is something I could relate to and it made me realize how the challenge of navigating general health issues is exponentially increased when you are also managing a chronic disease.

Mirhan: I did have prior knowledge that genetics plays a big role in weight management, but it was surprising to see just how big a role it plays. The biology of it is sadly not common knowledge. Dr. Lofton did a great job of simplifying the science behind it all and educating us on exactly how metabolism works and how it plays against the weight loss efforts, simply because of how certain people’s bodies naturally work due to their genetics.

March 4th is World Obesity Day, and this year’s theme is “Every Body Needs Everybody.” What does that mean to you and what’s your message to young adults looking to show their support on the day?

We can all be an advocate for others. Obesity is not a personal problem that patients have to tackle on their own; it’s a global challenge. Meaningful change will happen when we change our mindset from – it’s a “you” problem to its an “us” challenge. I’m passionate about fighting for the underdog, which in my mind, now includes people tackling weight issues. It’s something that was instilled in me at a very young age from my mother, a first-generation American Latina, and something I’m committed to doing for the rest of my life. Having professional advocates for patients is great; but, there’s no replacement for feeling that support and motivation from your friends and family, and that’s something we can all provide. So, whether it’s for women, minorities, vulnerable patients – be an advocate and help create an equal playing field. 

Mirhan: Everyone has a part to play in fighting the stigma surrounding weight. The first step is to get educated on the facts and treat others with kindness. Students and young adults in particular have always been at the forefront of driving social change. As we’ve seen especially this past year, we have the power to spark dialogue and start movements that gain traction. We just have to take the initiative – and there’s no better time than World Obesity Day to start. Speaking out and being part of this movement is the right thing to do.

I truly believe that through collective action and a joint commitment to social responsibility we can create a world with a brighter, healthier future.