'Fat Shaming' Linked to Weight Gain, Not Weight Loss

“Fat shaming” does not encourage weight loss in overweight adults; in fact, those who experience this type of discrimination tend to gain more weight, according to new research by University College London (UCL).

In a four-year study of 2,944 UK adults, those who experienced weight discrimination gained over two pounds whereas those who did not lost a pound and a half.

“Our study clearly shows that weight discrimination is part of the obesity problem and not the solution,” said senior author and clinical psychologist Dr. Jane Wardle, director of the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Centre at UCL.

“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.”

The research, published in the journal Obesity, goes against the common perception that discrimination or “fat shaming” tends to drive overweight adults into losing weight. The researchers asked participants whether they experienced day-to-day weight discrimination: being treated disrespectfully, receiving poor service in shops, and being harassed.

The study pulled data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, a study of adults ages 50 and older.

Of the 2,944 eligible participants in the study, five percent reported weight discrimination. This ranged from less than one percent of those in the “normal weight” category to 36 percent of those identified as “morbidly obese.”

There were no major differences in discrimination between men and women.

Since the research was a population survey and not an experimental study, the findings do not conclusively confirm that the link is causal. Discrimination was assessed two years after the initial weight measurements and two years before the final measurements; the results were controlled for other influential factors.

“There is no justification for discriminating against people because of their weight,” said lead author Dr. Sarah Jackson of UCL Epidemiology & Public Health. “Our results show that weight discrimination does not encourage weight loss, and suggest that it may even exacerbate weight gain.

“Previous studies have found that people who experience discrimination report comfort eating. Stress responses to discrimination can increase appetite, particularly for unhealthy, energy-dense food. Weight discrimination has also been shown to make people feel less confident about taking part in physical activity, so they tend to avoid it.”

University College London

Doctor speaking with obese patient photo by shutterstock.