The Obesity Epidemic Has Made Its Way to Nurses: What Does This Mean?


Obesity has been a worldwide health problem for decades, so much so that the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared it a global epidemic for the past several decades. Recently, obesity rates have nearly doubled around the world. In America, approximately two out of three adults struggle with excess weight, and over 300,000 people die annually due to obesity-related issues. Furthermore, the country’s healthcare costs for the condition amount to almost $150 billion every year.

Considering these impacts on the medical industry, many would be surprised that obesity also affects many of the healthcare workers who are tasked with attending to obese patients. Specifically, many nurses are afflicted with obesity.

Obesity among nurses

As of 2023, around 65% of healthcare workers qualify as overweight or obese. This was determined using the body mass index (BMI). This scale states that individuals within the 25 to 29.9 range count as overweight, while those who have a BMI of 30 and above are obese. A recent survey from the American Nurses Association revealed that the average body mass index of nurses within the country is 27.6, which equates to being overweight. Of all healthcare jobs, obesity rates were significantly higher with nurses compared to doctors, paramedics, technicians, and other medical roles.

Authorities are concerned since obese health workers tend to be less productive than their co-workers. This comes as no surprise, as obesity commonly leads to absenteeism and low job performance in professional settings, most likely due to the physical manifestations of this condition. In line with this, obese nurses are also more vulnerable to a variety of health risks. Apart from heart disease and stroke, obesity has also been proven to impair the immune system, raising the stakes for those who work in medical settings.

What causes obesity among nurses

Before taking a closer look at the working conditions of nurses, it must first be said that obesity is a complex condition that goes beyond exercise and diet. Other factors such as genetics, hormones, and socioeconomic status play a huge role in obesity. Many health experts also believe that set point weight makes it easier for some people to gain weight than others. This theory states that each body is predisposed to gravitate to a certain weight and tries to maintain it there despite weight regulation efforts. That being said, nurses tend to be exposed to weight gain triggers that only further aggravate obesity. In fact, the healthcare industry has been described as an obesogenic environment that triggers excessive weight gain.

Most nurses report experiencing high levels of stress while on the job. Nurses have to balance a high amount of responsibility with numerous demanding tasks throughout the day. This triggers the production of more hormones, such as cortisol which stores fat to provide much-needed energy for coping with stressful situations. Unfortunately, these hormones also increase the appetite, making people feel hungrier despite eating a lot. It’s also common for nurses to go past the standard eight-hour work shift, leading to insufficient and poor sleep quality. They also eat inconsistently throughout the day as they can’t always afford to take a break between tasks. Having an irregular eating and sleeping schedule disrupts the body’s metabolic rate, making it harder to digest food and break down fat. Lastly, many researchers attribute this problem to the selfless work that healthcare workers do. Several studies have explored how those who devote most of their time to caring for others have difficulty extending the same level of care for themselves.

Fortunately, the healthcare industry is continuously finding ways to support nurses battling obesity. An increasing amount of effective options for medical weight loss have become available in recent years, including medications such as semaglutide, orlistat, and naltrexone-bupropion. Sustainable weight loss programs are also on the rise, offering assistance tailored to a nurse’s lifestyle. Hospitals nationwide are also being incentivized to provide healthier food choices at their cafeterias. Following the challenges of 2020, many hospitals have also begun offering wellness programs for their staff. Many hope that these initiatives will help workers develop better habits, including ones that relate to weight management. Through treatments and interventions like these, nurses can begin tackling the complicated and challenging nature of obesity.


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