This week many news outlets reported on a study out of the University College London. Researchers there recently conducted an experiment to see if “fat shaming,” or discrimination against obese people, is an effective method for facilitating weight loss. The results:

“Our results show that weight discrimination does not encourage weight loss, and suggest that it may even exacerbate weight gain,” says lead author Dr. Sarah Jackson.

The Study

What they did in this study was poll over 3,000 adults aged 50 years or older. They asked them if they experienced “fat shaming” as defined below:

1. You are treated with less respect or courtesy
2. You receive poorer service than other people in restaurants and stores
3. People act as if they think you are not clever
4. You are threatened or harassed
5. You receive poorer service or treatment than other people from doctors or hospitals

Five percent of the participants replied “yes.” Everyone’s weight was then monitored over a four-year period. The people who said they were shamed reported gaining about 2 pounds (0.95 kg) on average. The people who didn’t reported losing about 1.6 pounds (0.71 kg) on average.

It’s important to note that the study was a survey and not a thorough experiment, so we can’t be sure that “fat shaming” actually caused the weight gain, or the extent to which these people were actually shamed. This is already an important consideration that casts doubt on the experimental design.

After collecting the data, the researchers ventured a guess as to why these people might have gained weight: “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.”

My Take

Everyone responds differently to adversity, and “negative encouragement.”

From the moment I stepped on a football field or basketball court, some kids responded quite well when a coach got in their face and yelled “You fucked up son, get off the court and do it better next time!” They were motivated by this pressure and used it as fuel to tear shit up next time through. Other kids would lose all confidence when the coach got in their face. They would be so scared of screwing up again that they would play nervously and suck as a consequence.

I don’t think “fat shaming” is any different: some people are motivated by this negative encouragement, and take it as a challenge. They start skipping dessert instead of skipping workouts. Other people are put down by it, and actually retreat further into whatever vice or mistake they’re being called out on. They cancel their gym membership and order Papa John’s.

And, when it comes to “fat shaming,” you have to realize that we’re dealing with a particular segment of the population. Obese people are, on average, not going to be champions of life, with sky-high confidence and the propensity to take on any challenge you throw their way. Let’s be honest: most non-obese people don’t even possess those virtues. And for the obese, the poor eating and exercise habits that got them where they are are most likely a direct reflection of a poor inner self image.

Put simply: they’re probably not in a good place mentally if they’re sitting at 30+ percent body fat. For this reason, I have to agree with the sentiments conveyed in the study. “Fat shaming” will most likely not have a positive effect on your average fat person. However, I have to laugh at some of the behaviors they classified as “fat shaming.”For example: “people act as if they think you are not clever”—that’s not because of your belly.

So sure, “fat shaming” may work on some of your buddies who are strong at heart, but just let their diet and exercise slip because of an intense work schedule, but on average it’s probably better to inform and encourage.

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