Fat Shaming Leads To Obesity
April 29, 2014

Young Girls Who Are Constantly Told They Are Fat More Likely To Become Obese

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Dieting in our society has gone from a fad to an obsession. Every website, every television station, and nearly every billboard you pass is telling you a new way to lose weight. We've even coined a word for what they are doing, "fat shaming." What kind of effect does such shaming have? A new study led by the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) took a look at that question and found a surprising answer. Females who are fat shamed by someone they trust — told they are too fat by a parent, sibling, friend, classmate or teacher — are more likely to be obese by age 19.

The research team, led by A. Janet Tomiyama, examined 1,213 African-American girls and 1,166 Caucasian girls living in Northern California, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., by measuring their height and weight at age 10 and again nine years later. Fifty-eight percent of the girls had been told they were too fat by age 10. The data for this study was obtained from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The findings, currently published online in JAMA Pediatrics, revealed that girls labeled fat by age 10 were 1.66 times more likely to be obese by age 19. The number of people who labeled the child that way made a difference as well. The more people who told the child she was too fat, the higher the likelihood that she would become obese during the study period.

"Simply being labeled as too fat has a measurable effect almost a decade later. We nearly fell off our chairs when we discovered this," said Tomiyama, an assistant professor of psychology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science. "Even after we statistically removed the effects of their actual weight, their income, their race and when they reached puberty, the effect remained."

"That means it's not just that heavier girls are called too fat and are still heavy years later; being labeled as too fat is creating an additional likelihood of being obese."

Tomiyama collaborated with UC Santa Barbara graduate student Jeffrey Hunger, who believes that simply being called fat can lead to self-destructive behaviors that result in obesity.

"Being labeled as too fat may lead people to worry about personally experiencing the stigma and discrimination faced by overweight individuals, and recent research suggests that experiencing or anticipating weight stigma increases stress and can lead to overeating," he said.

Last year, Tomiyama collaborated with former UCLA psychology faculty member Traci Mann (now at the University of Minnesota–Minneapolis) and UCLA graduate student Britt Ahlstrom on a literature review of 21 long-term studies on weight loss and health. The results, published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass, found no clear relationship between weight loss and health improvements related to hypertension, diabetes, cholesterol and blood glucose.

"We found no connection whatsoever between the amount of weight loss — whether small or large — and any of these health outcomes," said Tomiyama, who directs UCLA's Dieting, Stress and Health (DiSH) laboratory.

"Everyone assumes that the more weight you lose, the healthier you are, but the lowest rates of mortality are actually in people who are overweight," she said. "At a body mass index of 30, which is labeled obese, there is no increased risk of mortality. This has now been shown over and over again. The highest rate of mortality is in the underweight people."

The findings of this literature review support earlier work by Tomiyama, Mann and their team in 2007, when they reviewed 31 long-term studies. According to their analysis, people can initially lose 5 to 10 percent of their weight on any number of diets, but the majority regain all the weight, plus more. Weight loss was sustained by only a small minority of people.

"Eating in moderation is a good idea for everybody, and so is regular exercise," Mann said at the time of the initial study. "If dieting worked, it wouldn't be a $60 billion dollar industry," said Tomiyama, who noted that trying to be thin is similar to trying to be taller.

"The genetic power over weight is about the same as the power of genes over your height," she said. "People who say it's your fault if you're fat under-appreciate the role of genes."

For example, Tomiyama notes that, regardless of the type of environment they are raised in, twins separated at birth retain very similar weights.

Rather than obsessing about weight, Tomiyama says that people should be focusing on eating healthier and becoming fit. She is strongly opposed to stigmatizing — fat shaming — people who are overweight.

"When people feel bad, they tend to eat more, not decide to diet or take a jog," she said. "Making people feel bad about their weight could increase their levels of the hormone cortisol, which generally leads to weight gain."

Follow-up studies are being conducted with the women who participated in the original study published in JAMA Pediatrics, many of whom are in their 30s and have children of their own. The women come from a wide range of economic backgrounds. Tomiyama is also conducting a study to measure the cortisol levels in people who have been stigmatized for being overweight.