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Breaking Stigma

Understanding Obesity as
a Complex Disease

By Sachi Fujimori | Aug 2022

As the obesity epidemic continues to grow around the globe, there are still many misconceptions and stigma associated with the condition. Some people think obesity is simply caused by unhealthy eating habits and not exercising enough. As a result, people who who are overweight or have obesity can be unfairly judged as “lacking in willpower” or “lazy.”

But, in fact, the scientific and medical community defines obesity as a complex, multifactoral chronic disease. In 2013, the American Medical Assiocation officially recognized obesity as “a disease state requiring prevention and treatment efforts.”

Despite obesity being recognized as a chronic disease with guideline recommendations for treatment, most people with obesity do not receive any treatment for their condition. Although diet and exercise are an important part of the solution, these strategies alone are not always effective in helping patients lose weight and maintain a healthy body weight long term. While there are anti-obesity medications available today, less than 5% of patients living with obesity are prescribed an approved obesity medication.

Because societal stigma can deter patients with obesity from seeking help, Pfizer aims to help educate the public about what scientists believe may be the causes of obesity and the challenges patients face.

Potentially managing obesity with an “appetite” hormone

Glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) agonists are a class of medications that have been shown to help regulate insulin signalling, delay gastric emptying in response to eating food, as well as decrease appetite and increase satiety. Studies have found that taking these medicines can lead to weight loss.

After eating a meal, the body naturally releases a hormone called GLP-1 that acts on the appetite centers in the brain to decrease appetite and to help regulate blood sugar. Many people with obesity may have disordered hormone signaling related to hunger and feeling full, leading them to overeat.

Understanding the health
impacts of obesity

In addition to being a chronic complex disease, obesity is related to many other health conditions and affects nearly every organ system in the body. Even losing as little as 5% to 10% of body weight can help patients reduce the risk for many of these conditions.

By the numbers: How obesity
increases the risk for other diseases


Obesity increases the risk of ischemic stroke—a
serious condition that occurs when blood clots
block the vessels to the brain— by 64%.



Some 40% of sleep apnea cases are linked to being
overweight or obese. Sleep Apnea is a disorder
that involves disruptions in breathing during sleep.



With every 11 lbs of weight gain, there is
36% increase in the risk of Knee Osteoarthritis



The risk of developing Type 2 diabetes is 6 times
greater in people who have obesity.



Being overweight or obese is linked to some
13 different types of Cancer. It increases the risk
of developing….

  • Colorectal cancer 1.3 times
  • Pancreatic cancer 1.5 times
  • Post-menopausal breast cancer 1.2 to 1.4 times


Listening to the patient experience

Starting from the early stages of development, Pfizer scientists have engaged with patients to better understand how obesity impacts their quality of life. Some patients with obesity may lack energy, find daily activities such as walking to be too painful and tiring, or face job discrimination. It’s also important to note that obesity is not a condition that develops overnight. Many people struggle for years to control their weight, leading to shame, low self-esteem, and depression.

The challenge of living with obesity can be a vicious cycle. We are partnering with patients to listen to their experiences and preferences, understand the challenges they face, and let that be our guide as we work to develop novel therapies to improve outcomes for patients living with obesity.

Compounding the issue, some patients may blame themselves for their condition and not seek treatment. In addition, some doctors and other healthcare providers may tell patients that they just need to “eat less and exercise more.”

“We’re working with patient advocacy groups to really change the perception of obesity: to acknowledge it as a disease and to increase access to treatment and resources,” says Richard

In addition, combatting obesity requires addressing the social determinants of health linked to the condition, such as food security, access to healthcare, education, and safe spaces to play and exercise. “We need to recognize that depending on where you live, there are many other factors that may contribute to obesity,” says Richard.