Weight Loss Messages: Backfiring?

weight lossAn ever-popular New Year’s resolution, losing weight is on the top of the list for many. However, as more than two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, are some weight loss messages counterproductive?

Psychology Professor Dr. Brenda Major states that weight-stigmatizing messages that are presented by the media—ones that characterize overweight individuals as lazy, unmotivated, and self-indulgent—are actually contributing to the rising costs of health care, tipping the scales in the wrong direction.[1] In fact, some of the approaches actually lead to weight gain, instead.1

Research by University of California—Santa Barbara found that when women who perceive themselves to be overweight are exposed to weight-stigmatizing news articles, they are less likely to control their eating afterwards.1 The researchers used young women as their study participants as they are more vulnerable to issues related to weight.1 Half of them were asked to read a mock article from The New York Times, entitled “Lose Weight or Lose Your Job.”1 The other half were given another mock article from the news leader, called “Quit Smoking or Lose Your Job.”1

Major said, “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.”1

After the participants had read their assigned article, they were asked to describe it via video camera to someone who was unfamiliar with the content.1 Then, a 10-minute break was given, where the women, one at a time, were put into a room and asked to wait for the next phase of the study to begin.1 In the room, a variety of snacks were available, from M&M candies to Goldfish crackers.1 The food was weighed beforehand, and each participant was given the same type and amount, remaining in the room for the same amount of time.1

The final phase of the experiment had each participant answer a number of questions, including how capable she felt in exercising control over her food intake.1 While many may think that the women who read “Lose Weight or Lose Your Job” may have eaten less than those who read “Quit Smoking or Lose Your Job,” they actually ate significantly more.1 They also acknowledged feeling less in-control over their food intake.1

This study built upon an earlier study conducted by Major and her colleagues, in which the negative effects of being overweight and a women were analyzed when they were put into situations in which they feared being stigmatized due to their size.1

In the earlier study, each woman was asked to talk about the qualities that would make her a good date, either via audiotape or videotape.1 It was found that women who were videotaped experienced an increase in blood pressure and overall performed poorer than those audiotaped.1

Major said, “Our first study showed that being worried about being stigmatized because of your weight can decrease your self-control and increase stress. 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.”1

Surprisingly, however, women who did not perceive themselves to be overweight and read the article “Lose Weight or Lose Your Job” actually felt significantly more in control of their food intake afterwards.1

According to Major, “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. 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.”1

Major and colleagues suggest that weight loss messages that focus on good health and exercise, compared to weight and body mass index, would tip the scales back in the right direction.1 The stigma attached to being overweight is devastatingly unhealthy to those who are.1

Major 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.”1

[1] Nauert, R. (2014). Weight Loss Messages May Backfire. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 13, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/01/09/weight-loss-messages-may-backfire/64273.html

One Comment

  • Lynda

    January 19, 2014, 8:55 am

    I couldn’t resist commenting. Perfectly written!

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