Weight Inclusive Health programs teach students to look beyond the scale

April 16, 2024

Weight stigma is on the rise, but two new programs are pushing back.

Close-up of a white mechanical balance scale in front of a white tile background

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For many, being weighed at the doctor’s office is just a routine part of most medical appointments, no more significant or unpleasant than having their blood pressure taken. But for those in larger bodies, stepping on a healthcare provider’s scale can be a fraught experience that may expose them to weight stigma ranging from weight shaming, to missed diagnoses, to denial of care. That’s something the School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness (SNSW) hopes to change with two undergraduate programs in Weight Inclusive Health.

Weight stigma – discrimination against individuals due to their weight and size – is a growing problem in the United States. According to the National Institutes of Health, weight stigma has increased by 66% over the past decade, and one of the places it often appears is in healthcare. Providers tend to spend less time with patients whose BMIs place them in the “obese” category and are more likely to view them as noncompliant compared with patients in lower weight bodies.

“We’re all affected by weight bias to some extent,” said Ashley Munro, one of the driving forces behind the Weight Inclusive Health programs. “We all exist in this society that’s obsessed with weight and diet culture. So our programs teach students to identify that bias, to understand the potential negative health outcomes of weight stigma, and to push back against it.”

Meeting an industry need

SNSW has offered an 18-unit minor and 12-unit undergraduate certificate in Weight Inclusive Health since 2023. Both programs challenge the notion that body weight is an effective proxy for health. They offer alternative frameworks that emphasize non-weight-based markers of health and wellness, as well as instruction in concepts like intuitive eating, health at every size (HAES®), and weight-neutral care and counseling practices.

The programs arose from a desire to address weight stigma within the existing SNSW curriculum. “There were some folks in our school who thought some of our classes needed to be refreshed to incorporate more weight neutral concepts,” recalled Katelyn Barker, an assistant professor of practice in SNSW who designed the programs along with Munro. “As Ashley and I worked together to revamp some of the classes, the more we saw the potential for our students to really dig into these concepts.”

“Ours is one of the only undergraduate programs I’m aware of that offers specific curriculum in weight inclusive practices,” she went on. “It’s something that the students want, and it’s something that the healthcare industry needs.”

Celebrating body diversity across campus

So far, both the minor and the undergraduate certificate in Weight Inclusive Health have been well-received by students.

“We’ve seen such a positive response from the students,” Munro said. “Our enrollment has improved each semester, and the engagement has been amazing. And our courses aren’t static – our weight inclusive team is very intentional about using feedback to make improvements and learn alongside our students while we work to fill a significant gap in the education available to future healthcare providers.”

Barker attributes the programs’ popularity to their relevance to students’ lives. “Many of our students say that the information they get is not only helpful to their future careers, but to their own relationship with food and bodies,” she explained. “The skills they’re learning help with struggles they may be having now, and they’ll help in the future, when they might be working with folks who have similar struggles – they’ll have a wider skill set than what is traditionally offered in programs at other universities.”

In addition to offering formal curriculum, SNSW is working with Campus Health to challenge weight stigma and promote body, movement and food neutrality across campus through a collaboration they’ve named everyBODY Arizona.

“We have big aspirations for everyBODY Arizona,” Munro said. “We want to truly build community, so that folks have a space to go to have challenging conversations, to feel supported, to have access to resources and events. Right now it’s a collaboration between two units, but eventually I would like to see it grow to include more of the campus community.” 

Learn more about SNSW’s Weight Inclusive Health programs


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