People who experience the stigma of obesity are more likely to overeat, research shows

7 August 2015

 

Making people aware of their weight problems may not help them to improve their health.

A new study has revealed that people who are aware they are overweight or obese are more likely to comfort eat and gain weight, than those people who are not aware of their weight issues.

Dr Eric Robinson of Liverpool University carried out the research with colleagues in California and Stirling.

“Individuals who identified themselves as being overweight were more likely to report overeating in response to stress and this predicted subsequent weight gain.

“You would hope that making a person aware they are overweight would result in them being more likely to change and lose some weight. So, it is a tricky finding for public health intervention work,” he explains.

The research examines the lives of 14,000 adults in the UK and US using data from the National Child Development Study, the US National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health and Midlife in the United States.

The researchers examined the participants’ perceptions of their own weight– and whether or not it was correct – and compared this to their weight gain over time.

They looked at UK participants from when they were 23 to 45 years of age. The US cohort members had shorter follow up periods of seven years, and nine to 10 years.

The study’s authors could not point to an exact cause for the weight gain, but suggest that overeating and crash diets could be contributing to people’s obesity.

“The widely accepted finding is that these types of diets don’t work in the long run and the debate is over how much of a harmful effect they have. Weight regain is going to happen,” Dr Robinson says.

The researchers recommend that doctors and public health experts should tackle the stigma of obesity in society by focusing less on weight and body mass index numbers, and more on promoting healthy behaviours like eating well and getting more physical activity.

“People with a heavier body weight have body image challenges. That is not surprising given the way we talk about weight and fat and obesity as a society.

“But the way we talk about body weight and the way we portray overweight and obesity in society is something we can think about and reconsider. There are ways of talking about it and encouraging people to make healthy changes to their lifestyle that don’t portray obesity as a terribly deviant thing,” Dr Robinson concludes.

Further information

The research was first reported in The Guardian article, ‘Obesity awareness may be causing overeating, finds international study’. The full paper will be published in the International Journal of Obesity.