How Weight Stigma Affects Eating

Published: December 5, 2014

In a cleverly designed study published earlier this year, researchers looked at what happens when young women are exposed to negative messages about being overweight.

In the study, ninety-three female students read a fake news article. This article had either a negative message about being overweight or a similar negative message about being a smoker. The fake article explained why companies adopt policies discouraging them from employing people who are overweight or people who smoke. The reasons included concerns about greater insurance costs, physical ability to do the job, and the company’s image.

After reading the article, the study participants were asked to spend five minutes describing the article’s arguments while being videotaped. Then, participants were told that a break was necessary, and they were taken to a separate room where they could watch a video (about deep sea life) and help themselves to bowls containing Skittles, M&Ms, or Goldfish crackers. (The bowls were later weighed to determine how many calories the participant had consumed.)

After spending the ten-minute break alone and unobserved, participants completed a few questionnaires (including one asking them to rate how much control they had over their eating). Finally, they were weighed and measured.

Also, before doing the study, participants had completed an online questionnaire that asked them to rate their weight on a scale from 1 = very thin to 7 = very heavy. Their responses to this question were used to determine whether they perceived themselves as normal or thin (‘lower weight) or heavy (‘higher weight’). Here, it’s important to note that participants’ perceived weight status didn’t match up perfectly with their actual weight status (based on the measurements made in the lab). Some participants who perceived themselves to be higher weight were actually lower in weight, and some participants who perceived themselves to be lower weight were actually higher in weight.

Participants’ actual weight status didn’t affect the way they responded to the two different articles. However, their perceived weight did. Women who perceived themselves as higher weight tended to eat more calories (about 80 more, on average) after reading the weight-related article than after reading the smoking-related article. In contrast, women who perceived themselves as lower weight ate roughly the same amount of calories regardless of whether they had read the weight- or the smoking-related article. In addition, the women who perceived themselves as higher weight typically rated themselves as having lower control over their eating after reading the weight-related article, suggesting they probably didn’t intend to eat more.

But why does being exposed to negative messages about being overweight have the effect it does? The authors thought that the women who perceived themselves to be higher weight might be more upset after reading negative messages about being overweight. However, that was not the case. So the jury’s still out on why.

Even though we do not yet understand why, negative messages about being overweight leave some people feeling like they have less control over their eating. The study suggests that public health campaigns that use negative messaging for obesity prevention may do more harm than good!

Major, B., Hunger, J. M., Bunyan, D. P., & Miller, C. T. (2014). The ironic effects of weight stigma. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 51, 74–80. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2013.11.009

photo credit: emiiemai via Creative Commons