Negative public health campaigns may undermine weight loss goals

June 21, 2013 by Valerie Debenedette, Health Behavior News Service

Public health campaigns that stigmatize obese people by using negative images or text do not motivate them to lose weight any more than more neutral campaigns, finds a new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. In fact, negative campaigns may backfire by undermining a person's belief that he or she is capable of losing weight.

"Hundreds of anti-obesity are emerging in this country. What is really surprising and concerning is that these are really not being systematically assessed or evaluated," said Rebecca Puhl, Ph.D., director of research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. "That is why we did this study."

Stigmatizing health campaigns in other issues, such as tuberculosis or smoking, have been shown to impede treatment efforts.

The researchers compared negative vs. neutral national , including full-page ads, web pages, logos, or billboards. Stigmatizing campaigns included those publicly criticized for blaming and shaming and children. The neutral campaigns discussed healthy behaviors such as making better food or exercise choices.

In the study, 1083 people of normal weight or above were randomly assigned to view either stigmatizing or neutral campaigns and were then asked questions about whether the campaigns motivated them to want to improve their health, and whether they felt they could make the changes promoted by the campaigns.

Participants rated the stigmatizing campaigns and neutral campaigns as equally motivating for weight loss. But, when asked whether the campaigns promoted a clear plan of action or feelings that one could lose weight if they put their mind to it, participants found the stigmatizing messages less effective.

"Research shows that when people are made to feel stigmatized or ashamed of excess weight this leads to a range of different that can ultimately reinforce obesity," Puhl added. These can include binge eating and avoidance of exercise, as well as depression and anxiety. "We have the challenge of finding ways to grab the public attention without using shame or stigma."

"This corroborates with good science what those of us in the field have long thought: That negative approaches to urge people to lose weight do not work," said Patrick O'Neil, Ph.D., director of the Weight Management Center at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, and past president of the Obesity Society. Obese people are already the targets of a variety of prejudices and discrimination, he noted. "If that were to have an effect, it would have done so by now."

Explore further: Fighting obesity: Americans respond to positive messages, not shame

More information: Puhl, R. et al. Public Reactions to obesity-related health campaigns: A randomized controlled trial. J Prev Med. 2013.

Related Stories

Fighting obesity: Americans respond to positive messages, not shame

September 12, 2012
(Medical Xpress)—With over two thirds of Americans now overweight or obese, public health campaigns have emerged across the country to promote behavior that can help reduce America's waistline. But do the messages communicated ...

Positive media portrayals of obese individuals reduce weight stigma

February 21, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Presenting obese individuals in a positive, non-stereotypical manner in the media could help reduce weight-biased attitudes held by the public, finds a study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity ...

A doctor's words can enforce weight stigma

September 26, 2011
The language that health care providers use when discussing a child's weight with parents can reinforce negative weight-based stigma and jeopardize discussions about health, finds a study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy ...

Choosing words wisely when talking to patients about their weight

July 13, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- The language that health care providers use when discussing their patients’ body weight can reinforce stigma, reduce motivation for weight loss, and potentially lead to avoidance of future medical ...

Are 'food addicts' stigmatized?

February 6, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—In the first studies to examine what the public thinks about people with an addiction to food, researchers at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale found that while this addiction is less vulnerable ...

Recommended for you

Evening hours may pose higher risk for overeating, especially when under stress, study finds

January 16, 2018
Experiments with a small group of overweight men and women have added to evidence that "hunger hormone" levels rise and "satiety (or fullness) hormone" levels decrease in the evening. The findings also suggest that stress ...

Bariatric surgery prolongs lifespan in obese

January 16, 2018
Obese, middle-age men and women who had bariatric surgery have half the death rate of those who had traditional medical treatment over a 10-year period, reports a study that answers questions about the long-term risk of the ...

Sugar-sweetened drinks linked to overweight and obesity in children, adults: Analysis of new studies

December 23, 2017
A new review of the latest evidence on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs)- which includes 30 new studies published between 2013 and 2015 (and none of them industry sponsored) - concludes that SSB consumption is associated with ...

As income rises, women get slimmer—but not men

December 21, 2017
(HealthDay)—A comprehensive survey on the widening American waistline finds that as paychecks get bigger, women's average weight tends to drop.

Policy and early intervention can curb obesity rates

December 18, 2017
More information and emphasis on dietary lifestyle changes that prevent obesity, and its comorbidities, have not reduced the rise in obesity in U.S. adults and adolescents, according to a recent study in the New England Journal ...

Warning labels can help reduce soda consumption and obesity, new study suggests

December 15, 2017
Labels that warn people about the risks of drinking soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages can lower obesity and overweight prevalence, suggests a new Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.