Weight Stigmas Demotivate The Overweight
January 9, 2014

Weight Stigmas May Diminish Self-Control For The Overweight

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A new study from researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Vermont found that presenting people who consider themselves overweight with the conventional stigmas of overweight people as lazy or self-indulgent caused them to feel less self-control when it came to eating afterward.

In the study, which was published in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, young women were asked to read a phony article from The New York Times called either "Lose Weight or Lose Your Job” or "Quit Smoking or Lose Your Job."

"The first article described all real things we found in the media about different kinds of stigma that overweight people are facing in the workplace," said study author Brenda Major, from UCSB's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

After reading the sham articles, study volunteers were filmed describing their article’s content is if they were speaking to a stranger. Next, the women took a 10-minute break, during which the women were offered a variety of snacks in an adjoining room. The snacks were pre-weighed and every volunteer was offered the same type and amount of snacks.

Finally, study participants completed a survey in which they were asked how capable they felt exercising control over their food intake.

“People might think the overweight women who read the weight-stigmatizing article would eat less than the others," Major said, "but they didn't. As we predicted, they actually ate significantly more than the other women in the study. And afterward, they acknowledged feeling significantly less able to control their eating.”

"Many people who are overweight feel helpless to control their weight," she continued. "Our study illustrates that articles and ads about the obesity epidemic that imply it's just a matter of self-control can make overweight people feel even more helpless and out of control of their eating."

The new study builds on Major’s previous work that revealed the negative effects overweight women experience when they sense they are being stigmatized because of their weight.

In that study, each volunteer was asked to give a presentation on what makes her a good date. Each participant was told their presentation was being either videotaped or audio-taped. The researchers discovered that the overweight women who thought they were being filmed had higher increases in blood pressure and performed worse on a cognitive measure of self-control than the other participants.

"Our first study showed that being worried about being stigmatized because of your weight can decrease your self-control and increase stress," Major said. "And two big contributors to overeating are stress and feeling out of control. Thus, we predicted that exposing people who think they are overweight to messages emphasizing the stigma overweight people experience could actually cause them to eat more rather than less. And this is just what we found."

Major suggested that weight-loss advocacy messages should be focused on good health and exercise rather than simply weight loss or establishing a healthy body mass index (BMI).

"There is good evidence that BMI at very high levels is unhealthy. But people who are in the slightly overweight category actually live longer," Major pointed out. "A recent paper published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)  that summarized the results of many studies reaffirmed the idea that people who are slightly overweight tend to live longer than those who are thin or in the 'normal' weight category. That information doesn't get much publicity, though."