Menus Subscribe Search
overeating-obesity

(PHOTO: THE TURTLE FACTORY/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Irony in Our Diets: Stigmatizing Obesity Increases Overeating

• December 04, 2013 • 6:00 AM

(PHOTO: THE TURTLE FACTORY/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research suggests anti-obesity campaigns that stigmatize heaviness may be counterproductive.

Numerous causes contribute to the nation’s obesity epidemic, including our increasingly sedentary lifestyles and the easy availability of high-calorie foods. Newly published research points to another, less-obvious factor that appears to be exacerbating the problem: The negative labels we attach to people who are overweight.

Ironically, this stigmatization often can be found in anti-obesity campaigns themselves. According to a research team from the University of California-Santa Barbara, this may actually make these well-meaning efforts counterproductive.

“Social messages targeted at combating obesity may have paradoxical and undesired effects,” writes a research team led by psychologist Brenda Major. Its study is published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

If you think of yourself as overweight, and are reminded that people with extra pounds are often stereotyped, chances are you’ll experience what researchers call a “social identity threat.”

Major and her colleagues describe an experiment featuring 93 female university students. (An all-woman pool was chosen because “they are stigmatized at lower weights than males, and experience more weight-based discrimination in the workplace than males”). Forty-nine of the women rated themselves as overweight, while 44 classified themselves as of average weight or less.

Participants were assigned to read one of two versions of a news article. It explained why employers are reluctant to hire individuals who are overweight (in version one) or smokers (in version two). Only two of the women smoked, and their data was excluded from the analysis.

After taking two minutes to prepare, each participant spoke about the piece and its implications for five minutes while facing a video camera. They then were escorted into a nearby break room, where they were invited to unwind and have a snack. The room contained three bowls: one filled with Skittles, another with M&Ms, and a third with Goldfish crackers.

After 10 minutes, they were escorted out, and their weight and height were measured so that their BMI could be estimated. Research assistants then noted how many grams of the snack food they had consumed.

Nearly all—87 percent—of the women ate some food during the break. But the precise amount varied in telling ways.

Compared to those who had read about the smoking stigma, “Women who perceived themselves as overweight consumed significantly more high-calorie snack food—about 80 calories more, on average—after reading a news article about the social and economic costs associated with being overweight.”

Furthermore, their answers to a questionnaire revealed these women “felt significantly less capable of controlling their food intake after reading the weight-stigmatizing article,” rather than the version that stigmatized smokers.

Importantly, the researchers found this effect with women who perceived themselves as overweight, as opposed to those who were actually overweight (as measured by their BMI). To their surprise, they found that for women who do not think of themselves as overweight, “exposure to a weight-stigmatizing message appeared to boost their self-efficacy for controlling their diet.”

This difference “may explain the intuitive appeal of stigma as a motivational tool,” they write. “Among those who are not overweight, and have a hard time understanding what it is like to be overweight, stigma feels like it would help other people’s resolve to eat less, since it strengthens their own.”

But these findings suggest that assumption is very wrong. If you think of yourself as overweight, and are reminded that people with extra pounds are often stereotyped, devalued, or ridiculed, chances are you’ll experience what researchers call a “social identity threat.” That can cause increased anxiety and a depletion of self-control, both of which can lead to—you guessed it—overeating.

So public-health campaigns aimed at reducing obesity need to emphasize the positive aspects to losing weight, rather than the negative aspects of being fat. Focusing on the latter can make weight loss that much more difficult.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.


September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.


September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.