Obesity Discrimination: Shaming and Weight Loss or Gain


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Obese woman

Does weight discrimination make obesity more likely? Image by MLazarevski.

Doesn’t look like you’ve missed many meals.” Picking on fat people isn’t illegal.

Some may even believe ridicule can shame the obese into losing weight.

Angelina Sutin, PhD of Florida State University College of Medicine researched what happens when fat people get picked on.

Or at least what happens when they believe they have faced discrimination.

Her research, which was published in the online journal PLoS ONE, linked perceived weight discrimination with weight gain.

The Study: Comparing Discrimination with Weight Gain

Dr. Sutin and colleague, Antonio Terracciano, analyzed data from the “Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a nationally representative longitudinal study of Americans ages 50 and older.”  Longitudinal studies are considered more valid than other types of survey research, because they measure responses from the same individuals over time.

Sutin’s study compared the body-mass index (BMI) of 6,157 participants, 58.6% female, between 2006 and 2010.  The researchers then compared the measurements of  these individuals to their answers to questions about discrimination.

The Results: Weight Discrimination Linked to Obesity

Sutin’s study  found that “[p]articipants who experienced weight discrimination were approximately 2.5 times more likely to become obese by follow-up.” 

In an exclusive interview with Decoded Science, Sutin noted that the discrimination was not independently verified. Of the title of the study, “Perceived Weight. Discrimination and Obesity,” she states, ” it is perceived because it is the discrimination that participants reported” in everyday life.

Interestingly, other types of self-reported discrimination, such as age, sex, or race, did not lead to more obesity.  Within the context of the sample, which was conducted on those 50 and over, Sutin noted, “women and younger participants were more likely to report weight discrimination; there were no differences by ethnicity or education.”   The powerful effect of weight discrimination on weight gain surprised the researcher who noted in her interview with Decoded Science, “the effect of discrimination on obesity was very specific to weight discrimination.”

Shaming is not motivational. Image by Tobyotter.

Shaming is not motivational. Image by Tobyotter.

The Implications: Avoid Shame, Focus on Positive Motivation

The study noted that stress, “particularly stress that involves heightened public awareness” raises cortisol levels.  High levels of cortisol are linked to weight gain.  Other public stressors linked to higher cortisol levels according to Sutin are “work-related, relationship-related” which a also involve the scrutiny of others.

Dr. Sutin commented, ” People often rationalize that it is okay to discriminate based on weight because it will motivate the victim to lose weight. Our findings suggest the opposite. This study focused interpersonal forms of discrimination and did not directly address policy issues. It does suggest that campaigns aimed at shaming (and blaming) the individual would be counterproductive. It is possible to promote a healthy lifestyle without being stigmatizing.

Overweight Shaming: Counterproductive

So, instead of wryly noting a friend doesn’t look like they’ve missed many meals, encourage them to grab an apple and take a walk with you instead.  Take a look at the online site Fitness for Weight Loss, which lists 400 motivational quotes you can work into a conversation while you walk with a chubby pal. 


Fitness for Weight Loss. 400 Motivational Weight Loss Quotes. Accessed July 28, 2013.

Sutin A.R., Terracciano A. Perceived Weight Discrimination and Obesity.  (2013). PLoS ONE. Accessed July 28, 2013.

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