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Nurses Must Lead The Charge To Reverse Obesity’s Deep Impact on Profession and Across The Country

For decades, Americans have ranked nurses as the most trusted profession. No more evident than when our nurses became our frontline heroes during the pandemic. As nurses we had to handle that tremendous burden of care, despite unnerving changes in national guidelines and policy, and an ongoing death toll over 1 million COVID deaths. Yet, while we were continuing to battle our ongoing COVID-19 epidemic, quietly, the nursing profession has been dealing with another epidemic, our growing obesity crisis, which over the past two and a half years has continued to climb, risking  our own health. Sadly, and similar to rising rates of obesity in women of color across the country, our rates of obesity have been going unchecked for too long and are now impacting our profession and our lives. Simply, it’s time we as nurses take action.

As caregivers, our job and our identity is centered around looking out for others. For that reason, there is often less time to focus on one’s own health, which can be worsened by stressors in the workplace, lack of access to healthy food, and other factors. All of these issues, in addition to genetics and more, have led to higher rates of obesity among nurses, than other professions. These rates put us at risk for hundreds of other chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and multiple types of cancer. In addition to that, living with obesity impacts our daily existence with impediments to mobility, joint pain, and sleeping disorders which impacts our ability to do our jobs. Without a healthy workforce, proper sleep, and able bodies we risk being unable to provide the standards of care we aim to provide each and every day. This is in addition to the impacted mental health of those who live and work with obesity and have to deal with the societal shame and stigma that comes with it. As nurses, we need to be more vocal about the impact obesity has on our lives and our livelihoods.

We also know that obesity is a complex chronic disease that is frequently, and deeply misunderstood. Not only does it go underdiagnosed by health professionals, but the disease also lacks the insurance coverage necessary for those living with obesity, and especially in Black and brown communities, to actually treat it. To properly address this disease, patients must have access to a comprehensive continuum of care from behavioral health interventions, such as dietary adjustments and improving exercise habits, to medical consultations with an obesity specialist who can prescribe FDA-approved anti-obesity medications, when appropriate, access to healthy and fresh foods and much, much, more.

Today, more than 40% of Americans are living with obesity. In my community, 44.8% of Hispanics live with the disease, second only to non-Hispanic blacks at nearly 50%. Among Hispanic women, approximately 80% are living with being overweight or obesity compared to 64% of their non-Hispanic, white counterparts. Bluntly, obesity does not affect all communities the same, and access to proper treatment is not available to all. We see this each and every day in our hospitals and clinics. Obesity is not the only disease this applies too, but it’s one we can take meaningful steps to address.

Right now, gaps in private and public insurance coverage leave millions who are suffering with obesity without options to reverse the deadly trajectory of the disease. Obesity is a public health threat, but especially vulnerable are our seniors. As we age, our struggle to maintain a healthy weight gets harder as the body’s metabolism slows. The 14th U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Antonia Novello said in a recent op ed, “It’s extremely important that Medicare and private insurers take every step to ensure the full coverage continuum of care regarding obesity, with the aim of reducing the burden of comorbidities across the aging population.” Congress and the Administration can take action to address this gap and expand access to obesity care immediately. That is why, the National Association of Hispanic Nurses is proud to join the Nurses Obesity Network, a network of hundreds of thousands of nurses to speak up and demand better for our profession and our patients.

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