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THURSDAY, Jan. 16, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Feeling a little fat after the holidays? Beware. Reading a news story that seems to devalue people who are overweight might make you more likely to reach for snacks to soothe your anxiety.
Media stories that focus on topics such as the financial impact of obesity on society or the importance of better self-control for weight loss could spur weight gain among women, a small new study of college students contends.
When women who considered themselves overweight read news articles that appeared to put down overweight people, they seemed less able to control their eating than women who didn't feel they needed to shed pounds, the study found.
The study was designed to determine if people who felt stigmatized for being overweight were likely to eat more, due to resulting anxiety or frustration, said study author Brenda Major. She is a professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
"We know that stress and feeling out of control or overwhelmed can make you less able to inhibit behaviors," Major said. "So we wondered if the same things that increase feelings of stigma actually cause you to eat more.
"People assume those who are obese are weak-willed, have no self-control or are lazy," she added.
Seeing media stories covering the so-called "obesity epidemic" and its potential impact on health care costs triggered Major's interest in doing this study, she said. "There's a frenzy about obesity in the media and there's a negative, moralistic tone to the coverage," she said.
Major's questions about the impact of stigmatization on weight gain are related to the work of other researchers. A previous study showed that when overweight women were put in a situation where they felt they would be devalued because of their weight, their blood pressure went up and a test showed they scored worse in measures of self-control.
Other research, published last July in the journal PLoS One, showed that discriminating against people because of their weight could increase the chances they become obese.
For the new study, published online and in the March print issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Major and her team tapped 93 female students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who were an average of 19 years old. Slightly more than half of the women described themselves as being overweight.
Half of the women were asked to read a mock news article titled "Lose Weight or Lose Your Job," while the others reviewed a piece called "Quit Smoking or Lose Your Job." The articles described reasons employers are reluctant to hire those who are overweight or who smoke.
Next, participants presented a five-minute talk explaining the article, facing a video camera. Afterward, they were taken to a nearby room for a break. Candy and crackers were placed in clear view and the women were invited to help themselves.
Women who perceived themselves as overweight ate about 80 calories more of snack food after reading the news article on being overweight than did those who read the article on smoking. But for women who did not consider themselves overweight, calorie intake did not differ depending on which article they read.
The findings suggest that public-health messages need to emphasize the importance of health and exercise, and not focus on weight, Major said. "It's ironic that the fear of obesity and its impact is yet another cause of weight stigmatization," she said.
Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, expressed several reservations about the study. "It was a somewhat contrived experiment and a small sample," he said.
Katz cited other limitations of the study: The participants were all college-age, and potentially more emotionally impressionable; the effect on eating was measured immediately after reading the article and didn't allow time for the participants to put the information into perspective; and there might have been some anxiety about having to produce a summary of the article and be videotaped.
Katz said, however, that the study's core message is important. "If you're struggling with your weight and you feel like your culture doesn't like fat people, you're probably going to think less of yourself," he said. "Your culture doesn't like you."
Katz said he has found that it's necessary for people to stop blaming themselves for their weight problem before they can successfully lose weight. "It's related to their self-esteem," he said.
What can people do to encourage an overweight friend or loved one to live healthier? "Say something like, 'I really care about you. Is there anything I can do to be helpful?'" Katz suggested.
As long as your motivation is loving and genuinely caring, it's hard to go too far wrong, he said.
Learn more about obesity from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.