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Science Shows Fat Shaming Doesn't Work – In Fact, It Often Backfires

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Overweight and obese people are often the targets of discrimination and teasing. But while some might argue that 'fat shaming' encourages weight loss, a new study of nearly 3,000 British adults shows it's simply not true.

This isn't actually very surprising. Previous research has found that people often resort to comfort eating after being shamed for their weight. What's more, stress responses to discrimination can increase appetite, causing cravings for unhealthy, energy-rich food. Fat shaming also gives rise to body and confidence issues, making people less apt to participate in physical activities.

Exacerbating Weight Gain

According to the new research, which was conducted at the University College London, people who reported weight discrimination gained, on average, 2.1 pounds (0.95kg) whereas those who did not lost 1.57 pounds (0.71kg). That's a difference of 3.66 pounds (1.66kg).


These results appear in the latest edition of the journal Obesity (pdf).

The data was pulled from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, a study of adults aged 50 and older. During the four-year study, 2,944 UK adults were asked if they experienced day-to-day discrimination that they attributed to their weight. Examples included being treated disrespectfully, receiving poor service in shops, and being harassed.


About 5% reported weight discrimination of some sort. This ranged from less than 1% of participants in the "normal weight" category to 36% of those classified as "morbidly obese." Interestingly, both men and women reported similar levels of weight discrimination.


A Causal Link?

Now, this was a population survey and not a rigorous experimental study. So it can't be used to confirm beyond a shadow of a doubt that the positive association between discrimination and weight gain is causal. The researchers assessed fat shaming two years after the initial weight measurements were made, and two years before making the final measurements. As the researchers note in the study:

Weight was not measured in the same wave as discrimination was assessed, so baseline values were from two years earlier. We cannot be sure whether discrimination preceded weight gain or vice versa. It is therefore not possible to establish causal relationships; i.e. whether people gain weight as a consequence of experiencing weight discrimination, or whether gaining weight makes people more likely to experience weight discrimination or attribute experiences of discrimination to their weight.


That said, all the analyses were statistically controlled for initial weight and other potential influences.

'Combating Weight Stigma'

"The results of this study provide evidence that weight discrimination is associated with significant increases in body weight and waist circumference over time," conclude the authors. "Our findings underscore the need for effective interventions at the population level to combat weight stigma and discrimination."


And as noted by senior author Jane Wardle in a UCL release:

Our study clearly shows that weight discrimination is part of the obesity problem and not the solution. Weight bias has been documented not only among the general public but also among health professionals; and many obese patients report being treated disrespectfully by doctors because of their weight. Everyone, including doctors, should stop blaming and shaming people for their weight and offer support, and where appropriate, treatment.


Read the entire study at Obesity: "Perceived Weight Discrimination and Changes in Weight, Waist Circumference, and Weight Status". Supplementary information via UCL.

Top image: The To/Shutterstock

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