Messages designed to encourage weight loss could have opposite effect

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Washington: Weight-stigmatizing messages shown by media - ones characterizing overweight individuals as lazy, weak-willed, self-indulgent and contributing to rising health care costs - could be tipping the scales in the wrong direction, a new research has suggested.

According to UC Santa Barbara psychology professor Brenda Major's research, when women who perceive themselves as overweight are exposed to weight-stigmatizing news articles, they are less able to control their eating afterward than are women who don't perceive themselves that way.

The researchers asked half of the participants to read a mock article from The New York Times titled "Lose Weight or Lose Your Job." The other half read a similar article, "Quit Smoking or Lose Your Job."

After reading the articles, participants were asked to describe them via video camera to someone who was unfamiliar with the content.

A 10-minute break followed, during which the women were ushered into another room and asked to wait for the next phase of the experiment to begin. Available to them in that room were a variety of snacks, including M and Ms and Goldfish crackers.

The snacks were pre-weighed, and every participant was offered the same type and amount, and remained in the room for the same amount of time.

In the final phase of the experiment, each participant was asked a number of questions, including how capable she felt of exercising control over her food intake.

Major said that their first study showed that being worried about being stigmatized because of their weight could decrease people's self-control and increase stress, asserting that two big contributors to overeating are stress and feeling out of control.

The study has been published online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.