"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Margaret Mead
Research Article

Medical Students’ Attitudes towards Overweight and Obesity


Objective Studies from the USA have identified medical students as a major source of stigmatizing attitudes towards overweight and obese individuals. As data from Europe is scarce, medical students’ attitudes were investigated at the University of Leipzig in Leipzig, Germany. Design Cross-sectional survey containing an experimental manipulation consisting of a pair of vignettes depicting an obese and a normal weight 42-year-old woman, respectively. Vignettes were followed by the Fat Phobia Scale (FPS), a semantic differential assessing weight related attitudes. In case of the overweight vignette a panel of questions on causal attribution for the overweight preceded administration of the FPS. Subjects 671 medical students were enrolled at the University of Leipzig from May to June 2011. Results The overweight vignette was rated significantly more negative than the normal weight vignette (mean FPS score 3.65±0.45 versus 2.54±0.38, p<0.001). A higher proportion of students had negative attitudes towards the overweight as compared to the normal weight individual (98.9% versus 53.7%, p<0.001). A “positive energy balance” was perceived as the most relevant cause for the overweight, followed by “negligent personality trait”, “societal and social environment” and “biomedical causes”. Attributing a “positive energy balance” or “negligent personality trait” as relevant cause for the overweight was positively associated with negative attitudes. Conclusion The results of this study confirm and complement findings from other countries, mainly the USA, and indicate that weight bias in the health care setting may be a global issue. Stigmatizing attitudes towards overweight and obesity are prevalent among a sample of medical students at the University of Leipzig. Negative attitudes arise on the basis of holding the individual accountable for the excess weight. They call for bringing the topic of overweight and obesity more into the focus of the medical curriculum and for enhancing medical students’ awareness of the complex aetiology of this health condition.