Fat-shaming could raise health risks, study suggests

Story highlights

  • "Weight-bias internalization" was linked to more cases of metabolic syndrome
  • People with more health problems could feel worse about themselves, researcher says

It's a sad but true fact: Fat shaming is everywhere. Now, there's evidence it can do more than damage self-confidence -- it may also have serious health consequences.

A new study found that overweight women who believe negative messages about their bodies are at greater risk for heart disease and diabetes than those who maintain a more positive body image.
The research, published in the journal Obesity, showed that higher levels of "weight-bias internalization" -- the term for what happens when people are aware of negative stereotypes about obesity and apply those stereotypes to themselves -- were associated with more cases of metabolic syndrome, a combination of health issues that raise the risk for heart disease and diabetes.
    This was true above and beyond the effects of body mass index (BMI), indicating that internalization isn't just a result of weight or other issues, but a risk factor on its own.
    "There is a misconception that sometimes a little bit of stigma is necessary to motivate people to lose weight," says lead author Rebecca Pearl, PhD, assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. "But time and time again, research shows that this is just not the case."
    The new study supports the idea that when people feel bad about themselves, it can affect their physical health as well as their mental health, Pearl says.
    To study this effect, Pearl and her colleagues at Penn's Center for Weight and Eating Disorders focused on 159 obese women who were enrolled in a clinical trial to test the effects of weight-loss medication. (The study was funded by the drug's parent company, Eisai Pharmaceutical Co.)
    To determine their level of weight-bias internalization, the women indicated how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements such as, "I hate myself for being overweight." The statements touched on stereotypes about overweight people being lazy, unattractive, or incompetent.