2023 Research Impact Canada Engaged Scholarship Award Winner (Master’s category): Vida Forouhar

Vida Forouhar was awarded the 2023 Research Impact Canada Engaged Scholarship Award for her project, Weight Bias: Trends Among the Canadian Public and Relationships with Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour.

About project

Weight discrimination is a social justice issue that is prevalent worldwide. In Canada, weight discrimination is grouped into the second most common forms of general discrimination and is pervasive across all facets of society. This form of discrimination is perpetuated though negative attitudes and beliefs towards others due to their weight status, known as explicit weight bias, as well as through misconceptions about the causes of obesity. This bias stems from the socially acceptable stereotypes that people with overweight or obesity are lazy, unintelligent, incompetent and lack willpower. These negative attitudes create a stigma around individuals living in larger bodies, known as weight stigma, which further isolates and degrades this population. People with overweight and obesity face discrimination in the form of verbal harassment or hate-crimes, unequal opportunities for employment, weight-based bullying or teasing in the workplace and in education settings, and improper treatment from healthcare professionals. Experiencing weight bias, whether from encounters with others or self-directed through weight bias internalization, is associated with many adverse mental and physical health outcomes such as depression and anxiety, psychological distress, poor body image, and binge eating or disordered eating. These experiences may lead to the development of avoidant or maladaptive coping strategies, such as avoiding routine healthcare appointments, partaking in unhealthy weight control behaviours, avoiding physical activity and self-stigmatizing through shame and guilty. It is imperative to address the consistent disparagement of individuals with overweight and obesity by advocating for their basic human rights to education, employment, and healthcare. In order to address this issue, we must first understand how weight bias is manifested among the Canadian public. 

Therefore, for my master’s thesis project, I conducted a two-part study in which I measured weight-related attitudes among a large sample of Canadian adults and examined whether these attitudes were related to one’s physical activity and sedentary behaviour. More specifically, my project reports on the beliefs about the causes of obesity, negative attitudes about individuals perceived to have higher weights (explicit weight bias), and the extent to which individuals internalize these negative attitudes (weight bias internalization). My study results demonstrated that Canadians internalize weight bias to some extent and attribute obesity mainly to behavioural factors as opposed to physiological, psychosocial and environmental factors. It was further found that those who attribute obesity mainly to behavioural factors have more negative attitudes towards those with obesity. Results also demonstrated that Canadians who blatantly dislike people with obesity spend more time performing vigorous physical activity per week, but those who demonstrate a fear of weight gain spend less time in weekly vigorous physical activity. One of the more interesting findings was that all individuals, regardless of weight status, spend more hours in sedentary behaviour per week if they internalize negative-weight related attitudes more.

The results from my study highlight weight bias as a social justice issue and that many individuals, regardless of weight status, are affected by the perils of internalizing the stigma associated with these negative societal attitudes surrounding weight. My project aims to raise awareness of the prevalence of weight bias among Canadians, and to highlight how these attitudes are adversely related to certain health behaviours. This project also fills important knowledge gaps in the field of weight bias, stigma, and discrimination, as it was the first to measure these attitudes among lay Canadians and it was also the first study to determine the relationship between weight bias internalization and sedentary behaviour in a near-representative sample that is inclusive of all body weight statuses. My study can further inform future longterm research that aims to develop interventions targeted at promoting changes in health behaviours. 

The ultimate goal for this research project is to push forth the agenda to mitigate weight bias in Canada and to emphasize the importance of educating the public on the complexity of obesity as a chronic disease. By contributing to the literature that highlights the perils of experiencing weight bias, studies like mine can also urging policy makers to take action in addressing this social issue through health policy changes. I hope to achieve this goal in the continuation of the research that I am conducting now as a research coordinator at the Montreal Interdisciplinary Laboratory on Obesity and Health.

About award recipient

Vida is a recent graduate of Concordia University in Montreal where she completed her MSc in Health and Exercise Science in August 2022. She is currently working as a Research Coordinator at the Montreal Interdisciplinary Laboratory on Obesity and Health (MILOH Lab) at Concordia University. Vida’s research focuses on the topics of weight bias, stigma and discrimination, particularly in relation to health behaviours like physical activity and sedentary behaviour. She is interested in understanding how weight bias is manifested among the general public and how weight bias reduction interventions and body acceptance programs can be used to promote long-term changes in physical activity and sedentary behaviour. Currently, Vida is working on a project that aims to bridge the gap in communication between pregnant individuals and prenatal care providers on sensitive topics, like gestational weight gain or gestational diabetes, during pregnancy. Outside the scope of her own research, Vida is generally interested in public health and epidemiology, as well as research on the social determinants of health.