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U-Conn study: 1in 5 adults turn weight bia inward

October 30, 2017

It’s no secret that people sometimes have negative ideas about overweight or obese people, and treat them badly because of their weight. For years, experts have believed that people who are targets of this stigma can turn it inward, thinking negative thoughts about themselves, and engaging in harmful behaviors.

However, it wasn’t known how common this self-directed stigma was — until now. A new study by the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity revealed that about 1 in 5 adults engage in this self-loathing behavior, known as internalized weight bias. It’s even more more common among adults who are obese, with 52 percent of them admitting to internalizing their weight bias.

“People who are currently trying to lose weight have higher levels (of self-stigmatization), said Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the Rudd Center and the study’s lead author. “But we also see it in people who are overweight (as opposed to obese) and people who are not overweight or obese.”

The study, published today in the journal Obesity, looked at three groups of American adults — 2,529 adults from a diverse national survey panel; 515 adults from a national online data collection service; and 456 members of the Obesity Action Coalition who have struggled with their weight.

The 3,504 participants completed online surveys between July 2015 and October 2016. In all three samples, participants answered questions about their demographic characteristics, weight status and dieting behavior, and history of experiencing weight stigma. They also answered questions about the extent to which they blame themselves for stigma, apply negative weight-based stereotypes to themselves, and negatively judge themselves due to their body weight.

The key findings of the study include:

• At least 44 percent of adults across all three samples reported average levels of weight bias internalization.

• Among adults with the highest levels of weight bias internalization, 72 percent were women, supporting other studies showing an increased vulnerability among women compared to men.

• 84 percent of adults with a high level of weight bias internalization reported a history of experiencing weight stigma.

• Black and Latino participants had lower levels of weight bias internalization compared to white ons.

• Among adults with a high level of weight bias internalization, 86 percent were currently trying to lose weight, 78 percent reported being teased, and 58 percent reported being treated unfairly because of their weight.

• In contrast, much smaller percentages of people with low internalization were currently trying to lose weight (21 percent), or reported being teased (17 percent) or treated unfairly (7 percent) because of their weight.

Puhl said the study is important, as people with internalized weight bias can have higher stress levels, a higher rate of disordered eating, and are less likely to exercise.

“It can affect health in a very detrimental way,” she said. “It’s something important for us to look at.”