If you're one of the millions of people who
count losing weight among their top New Year's resolutions, you might want to
pay careful attention to some new findings by UC Santa Barbara psychology
professor Brenda Major.
It turns out that the weight-stigmatising
messages presented by the media – the ones that characterise overweight
individuals as lazy, weak-willed, self-indulgent and contributing to rising
health care costs – may be tipping the scales in the wrong direction. Designed
to encourage weight loss, they may actually have the opposite effect.
According to Major's research, which
appears in the current online issue of the Journal of Experimental Social
Psychology, when women who perceive themselves as overweight are exposed to
weight-stigmatizing news articles, they are less able to control their eating
afterward than are women who don't perceive themselves that way.
Using young women as their test subjects
(because, as a group, young women are particularly vulnerable to issues related
to weight stigma), the researchers asked half the participants to read a
mock article from The New York Times titled "Lose Weight or Lose Your
Job". The other half read a similar article, "Quit Smoking or Lose
"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 Major, a faculty member in
UCSB's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
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After reading the articles, participants
were asked to describe them via video camera to someone who was unfamiliar with
the content. A 10-minute break followed, during which the women were ushered
into another room and asked to wait for the next phase of the experiment to
begin. Available to them in that room were a variety of snacks, including
M&Ms and Goldfish crackers.
The snacks were pre-weighed, and every
participant was offered the same type and amount, and remained in the room for
the same amount of time.
In the final phase of the experiment, each
participant was asked a number of questions, including how capable she felt of
exercising control over her 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."
Less control over eating
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."
Major's current study builds on her earlier
research demonstrating the negative effects overweight women experience when
they are put into situations in which they fear being stigmatised because of
their weight. In that study, each participant was asked to give a talk – which
she believed was either audiotaped or videotaped – on the qualities that make
her a good date.
Major and her colleagues found that the
overweight women who thought they were being videotaped had greater increases
in blood pressure and performed more poorly than the others on a subsequent
cognitive measure of self-control than did others in the study.
Stress and feeling out of control
"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."
One finding in the current study that
surprised her, however, was that women who didn't perceive themselves as
overweight and who read the "Lose Weight or Lose Your Job" article
subsequently reported feeling significantly more in control of their food
intake afterward. "This may partly explain why some people who've never
had an issue with weight and feel in control of their eating think that weight
stigmatizing messages ought to cause people to eat less," Major said.
"For them, these messages have that effect. But for people who don't feel
in control of their eating, these messages have the opposite effect."
She suggested that messages related to
weight loss would be more effective if they focused on good health and exercise
rather than on weight and 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," said Major. "A recent
paper published by the Centres for Disease Control 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."
Focusing on weight and BMI can do a
tremendous disservice to people who are in a constant battle with their scales.
"More than 90 percent of individuals who lose weight gain it back in two
years," Major said. "There's so much biology involved and so many
metabolic factors that it's difficult for almost everyone to lose weight and
keep it off. Once people become heavy, their metabolism changes and the reward centres
in the brain function differently."
Major argued that the stigma attached to
being overweight is devastatingly unhealthy at a psychological level.
"People are literally dying to be thin," she said. "When you
have such a focus on weight and people saying they'd take 10 years off their
lives in exchange for being thin, or young women saying they'd rather lose an
arm than gain weight, it shows an incredible amount of fear."
Major's current research is supported by a
three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to study weight stigma
and its paradoxical and counterintuitive effects. Next, she plans to look at
the impact of weight stigma on changes in the stress hormone cortisol.
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