Yale Researchers Find Stigmatizing Overweight People Can Discourage Dieting

A Yale University study of overweight people tested the claim that weight bias motivates people to lose weight and found the opposite can be the case – individuals cope with weight stigmatization through a variety of strategies, including eating more food and giving up on dieting.

The study by Rebecca Puhl, associate research scientist, and Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, was published in the October 2006 issue of the journal Obesity.

In a survey of more than 2,000 members of a weight loss support program, 93 percent reported “heading off negative remarks” as a coping strategy to deal with weight stigma; 91 percent used positive self talk; 89 percent sought social support; 86 percent used faith, prayer and religion, the same percentage that used self-love and self-acceptance. Eating more food in response to discriminatory treatment was reported by 79 percent of the participants, and refusing to diet was reported by 75 percent. A smaller number, 63 percent, said that they had used dieting to cope with stigma.

“We frequently encounter the argument that stigmatization may somehow motivate people to lose weight,” said Puhl. “But a large number of people in our study reported that they are less likely to diet and more likely to turn to food as a coping strategy when they encounter weight stigma.”

Participants reported many forms of weight bias. The most common was other  people making negative assumptions about them due to their weight (68 percent), closely followed by receiving nasty comments from children (63 percent). The sources of the stigmatization were surprising. Family members were the most frequent perpetrators at 72 percent, and physicians closely following at 69 percent. In a smaller male-only group, classmates were the most common source of weight-discrimination, with 68 percent of men saying they had been stigmatized by classmates more than once.

“One of our more compelling findings is that physicians, who could be a helpful resource for people struggling to manage their weight, are not immune from the strong bias present in the general society” said Puhl. “There are clear implications for medical education and sensitivity training.”