Here’s why fat-shaming only makes things worse, according to scientists

Excessively fat-shaming won’t push people into trying to lose weight.
Excessively fat-shaming won’t push people into trying to lose weight. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Excessively fat-shaming won’t push people into trying to lose weight. It’ll only backfire, increasing risk of weight gain, depression and even heart disease, a new study is warning.

People battling with weight are often stereotyped as lazy, incompetent, unattractive and lacking willpower to tame their eating, according to University of Pennsylvania doctors. The fat-shaming and prejudice they encounter takes “a toll on health,” making it harder to change their ways, they say.

It’s a bit of a vicious cycle.

“There is a common misconception that stigma might help motivate individuals with obesity to lose weight and improve their health. We are finding it has quite the opposite effect. When people feel shamed because of their weight, they are more likely to avoid exercise and consume more calories to cope with this stress,” Dr. Rebecca Pearl, the study’s lead author, said in a university statement.

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“In this study, we identified a significant relationship between the internalization of weight bias and having a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome, which is a marker of poor health,” she said.

READ MORE: How Christine Hopaluk lost 14 dress sizes and 129 pounds – and kept it off for 11 years

Pearl is a professor of psychology and psychiatry. In her study, her team worked with 159 adults living with obesity who were taking part in larger clinic trials on weight loss.

Pearl said study participants were internalizing the fat-shaming they encountered – they believed in the stereotypes that they were lazy, ugly and not as valuable as their slimmer peers.

In medical examinations, the researchers looked at risk factors, such as levels of bad cholesterol, blood pressure, waist circumferences and risk of Type 2 diabetes.

READ MORE: How Canadian mom Jennifer Petrucci lost 129 pounds and 10 dress sizes

Turns out, people who dealt with the most fat-shaming and were convinced they weren’t worth it, were three times more likely to have metabolic syndrome and six times more likely to have high triglyceride levels compared to their peers who didn’t care much about fat-shaming or didn’t face it as often.

It’s up to doctors to remind their patients not to buy into the fat-shaming messaging they may receive, the researchers say. It isn’t helping when it comes to healthy, sustainable weight loss.

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In previous studies, the medical community learned that fat-shaming left people with higher levels of inflammation and cortisol, a stress hormone that triggers overeating and the urge to turn to comfort food.

The study was published in the journal Obesity.

In 2013, the American Medical Association recognized obesity as an illness, forcing global health officials to rethink the way obesity is approached and treated.

READ MORE: Is obesity an illness? U.S. medical association recognizes condition as official disease

There’s strong stigma around obesity as well, the doctors say. While the AMA voted in favour of medicalizing the condition, critics claim that the decision labels one-third of Americans as being sick. Some of these people could be treated simply for having a high BMI, while they may be healthy.

Ultimately, they argue that the decision removes the responsibility of personal health from the patient, who may use the disease as an excuse.

(To that, the AMA offered this response in its resolution: “The suggestion that obesity is not a disease but rather a consequence of a chosen lifestyle exemplified by overeating and/or inactivity is equivalent to suggesting that lung cancer is not a disease because it was brought about by individual choice to smoke cigarettes.”)

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