Media Focus on Obesity May Backfire for Some Women01/16/14
THURSDAY, Jan. 16, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Feeling a little fat
after the holidays? Beware. Reading a news story that seems to
devalue people who are overweight might make you more likely to
reach for snacks to soothe your anxiety.
Media stories that focus on topics such as the financial impact
of obesity on society or the importance of better self-control for
weight loss could spur weight gain among women, a small new study
of college students contends.
When women who considered themselves overweight read news
articles that appeared to put down overweight people, they seemed
less able to control their eating than women who didn't feel they
needed to shed pounds, the study found.
The study was designed to determine if people who felt
stigmatized for being overweight were likely to eat more, due to
resulting anxiety or frustration, said study author Brenda Major.
She is a professor in the department of psychological and brain
sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
"We know that stress and feeling out of control or overwhelmed can make you less able to inhibit behaviors," Major said. "So we wondered if the same things that increase feelings of stigma actually cause you to eat more.
"People assume those who are obese are weak-willed, have no self-control or are lazy," she added.
Seeing media stories covering the so-called "obesity epidemic"
and its potential impact on health care costs triggered Major's
interest in doing this study, she said. "There's a frenzy about
obesity in the media and there's a negative, moralistic tone to the
coverage," she said.
Major's questions about the impact of stigmatization on weight
gain are related to the work of other researchers. A previous study
showed that when overweight women were put in a situation where
they felt they would be devalued because of their weight, their
blood pressure went up and a test showed they scored worse in
measures of self-control.
Other research, published last July in the journal
PLoS One, showed that discriminating against people because
of their weight could increase the chances they become obese.
For the new study, published online and in the March print issue
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Major and her
team tapped 93 female students at the University of California,
Santa Barbara, who were an average of 19 years old. Slightly more
than half of the women described themselves as being
Half of the women were asked to read a mock news article titled
"Lose Weight or Lose Your Job," while the others reviewed a piece
called "Quit Smoking or Lose Your Job." The articles described
reasons employers are reluctant to hire those who are overweight or
Next, participants presented a five-minute talk explaining the
article, facing a video camera. Afterward, they were taken to a
nearby room for a break. Candy and crackers were placed in clear
view and the women were invited to help themselves.
Women who perceived themselves as overweight ate about 80
calories more of snack food after reading the news article on being
overweight than did those who read the article on smoking. But for
women who did not consider themselves overweight, calorie intake
did not differ depending on which article they read.
The findings suggest that public-health messages need to
emphasize the importance of health and exercise, and not focus on
weight, Major said. "It's ironic that the fear of obesity and its
impact is yet another cause of weight stigmatization," she
Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention
Research Center, expressed several reservations about the study.
"It was a somewhat contrived experiment and a small sample," he
Katz cited other limitations of the study: The participants were
all college-age, and potentially more emotionally impressionable;
the effect on eating was measured immediately after reading the
article and didn't allow time for the participants to put the
information into perspective; and there might have been some
anxiety about having to produce a summary of the article and be
Katz said, however, that the study's core message is important.
"If you're struggling with your weight and you feel like your
culture doesn't like fat people, you're probably going to think
less of yourself," he said. "Your culture doesn't like you."
Katz said he has found that it's necessary for people to stop
blaming themselves for their weight problem before they can
successfully lose weight. "It's related to their self-esteem," he
What can people do to encourage an overweight friend or loved
one to live healthier? "Say something like, 'I really care about
you. Is there anything I can do to be helpful?'" Katz
As long as your motivation is loving and genuinely caring, it's
hard to go too far wrong, he said.
Learn more about obesity from the
U.S. National Library of Medicine.
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