Weight Discrimination

The next time you see someone who's overweight, think before you speak.

A new study shows that heavy people who are badgered or discriminated against because of their extra pounds often end up gaining even more weight as a result of being criticized.

The study, published today in the journal PLOS ONE, shows that obese people over the age of 50 who believed they were being discriminated against because of their weight had worse health outcomes over time than their peers. Participants who believed they experienced weight discrimination were two and a half times more likely to become or remain obese during the four-year study period.

“Weight discrimination, which is often justified because it is thought to help encourage obese individuals to lose weight, can actually have the opposite effect: it is associated with the development and maintenance of obesity," concluded the study's authors, Angelina R. Sutin and Antonio Terracciano of the Florida State University College of Medicine. "Such discrimination is one social determinant of health that may contribute to inequities in employment, relationships, healthcare delivery, and body weight.”

Too Fat for Grad School?

In May, a study published in the journal Obesity showed that overweight people were less likely to be admitted to graduate school than their peers after having in-person interviews.

“This is a health problem that is so physically visible,” said Jacob Burmeister, a graduate student in psychology at Bowling Green State University, in an interview with Healthline. “It's wrapped up in all the stereotypes about self-control and willpower, and people generally tend to attribute those personal factors as causes, but really they may not play such a large role after all.”

Burmeister authored the graduate school study and was not surprised by the findings of the new study in PLOS ONE.

'Lazy' Label Doesn't Help

In an interview with Healthline, Sutin said criticizing overweight people for being "lazy" can create a viscous cycle. “Obesity is often framed as the individual’s problem: He is obese because he cannot control his behavior. This research shows that the social environment in which the individual navigates is part of the etiology of obesity.”

Obesity is a rapidly growing problem in the U.S. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of U.S. adults are obese. Obesity can increase a person's risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death in the U.S. In 2008, the medical costs associated with obesity were estimated at $147 billion.

When overweight people absorb discrimination about their extra pounds, they may actually want to eat more and exercise less, the study authors argued. “There is robust evidence that internalizing weight-based stereotypes, teasing, and stigmatizing experiences are associated with more frequent binge eating. Overeating is a common emotion-regulation strategy, and those who feel the stress of stigmatization report that they cope with it by eating more. Individuals who endure stigmatizing experiences also perceive themselves as less competent to engage in physical activities and are thus less willing to exercise and tend to avoid it.”

Is There a Way to Help an Overweight Friend?

So if you see a friend or loved one who is overweight, and speaking up isn't a good idea, what can you do to help them?

“That is an excellent question and one that scientists and practitioners are striving to answer,” Sutin said. “More research is needed to identify the best and most effective way to address issues of weight.”

Sutin said her research team will expand on their current findings in an attempt to do just that. “We used a broad measure of weight discrimination in this research. We are now interested in examining the extent to which the context of the discrimination matters—whether it happened at work, within the family, at the doctor’s office, etc. We are interested in whether the consequences of weight discrimination vary by the context in which it occurs and what factors increase resilience to its negative effects."

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