Pressuring overweight individuals to lose pounds can cause them to overeat, according to a study recently released by two Yale researchers.
Nearly 80 percent of those surveyed in a weight-loss support program said they ate more food when people discriminated against them as a result of their weight, the researchers reported in the Oct. 2006 issue of the scientific journal Obesity. Seventy-five percent of the same group of participants refused to diet to deal with weight bias.
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Associate research and psychology scientist Rebecca Puhl, who co-authored the study, said one possible explanation for the results is that being disparaged due to weight is a stressful experience that triggers coping strategies, including eating.
“Weight stigma is pervasively and socially acceptable in our society,” she said in an e-mail. “There may be less support for people who are victims of weight bias, which may in turn lead more people to cope with other methods such as eating food.”
But making behavioral changes in eating habits was not the only response to weight stigmatization that researchers discovered, according to a statement released by the University. They found that over 90 percent of respondents also dealt with negative perceptions of overweight people by changing their psychological attitudes towards weight issues, using strategies such as positive self-talk, social support, prayer and faith and self-acceptance.
The researchers conducted surveys online, using a sample of over 2,000 participants in a weight-loss support program. The subjects were asked about their experiences and strategies regarding weight bias and were also surveyed about their emotional well-being.
Puhl said the researchers showed that family members were the most common source of stigmatization and that, perhaps surprisingly, physicians were second.
“This suggests that we need to promote efforts to address stigma in medical education and training,” she said.
Psychology professor Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, also co-authored the study.
Despite heightened awareness of the negative effects stigmatization, Daniel Fierro ’10 said, many people still feel pressured by society to lose weight, and often cope in destructive ways.
Instead of judging those who are overweight, he said, society should provide help for these individuals.
“When it comes down to it, we’re all dependent on each other for the support we need to get through personal health issues such as weight management,” he said.
Some students said the results of the study initially seemed counter-intuitive, but after reflection, the reported methods of deal with weigh bias were not that surprising.
“I guess if people are made to feel bad about their weight, then they might turn to overeating to feel better,” Claire Halpert ’07 said.
Puhl, who has been performing research on weight bias and stigmatization for eight years, said that in the future researchers will likely focus on ways to reduce weight bias in settings such as schools, health care facilities and places of employment.
She said she thinks society should consider weight stigma to be part of the public health effort to combat obesity.
“We need to reduce rates of obesity without creating stigma and further worsening emotional and physical health outcomes for obese people themselves,” she said.