Stigmatising the obese may worsen consumption habits, say researchers

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

Healthy eating labels, such as the traffic light system in the UK, need to "lessen the burden associated with making healthy choices in an environment that is replete with options," says Jeffrey Hunger
Healthy eating labels, such as the traffic light system in the UK, need to "lessen the burden associated with making healthy choices in an environment that is replete with options," says Jeffrey Hunger

Related tags Nutrition Obesity

Attempting to tackle the obesity crisis through ‘negatively-focused’ tactics is ineffective, and may in fact worsen the situation, according to various researchers.

The research papers were presented at a symposium on the Psychology of Food Choice, held in California last week.

Negative portrayal of obese people leads to…obesity

Negatively portraying overweight people in public health campaigns is not only ineffective in reducing obesity but may actually have the adverse effect, according to researchers from the University of California.

“For individuals who perceive themselves to be overweight, media messages that stigmatize obesity … can have the paradoxical effects of increasing their consumption of calorie-rich food and reducing their feelings of self-efficacy for being able to control their diet,” ​says the study.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,​ cited the examples of US state Georgia’s healthy eating campaign which portrays fat children looking unhappy or other states that send schoolchildren home with BMI report cards.

Consequently, public health campaigns aimed at reducing obesity but that stigmatize overweight and obese individuals may have negative psychological and behavioral consequences that ultimately can impair their efforts at weight control.”

Lead researcher, Jeffrey Hunger, told FoodNavigator: “Those in the food industry trying to promote healthy eating would do best by not relying on stereotypical portrayals (… ) to sell their products. These sorts of representations not only perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes — bodyweight is a very poor proxy for actual health — but may also marginalize a segment of the consumer population.”​ 

The cognitive strain of calorie counting

Other researchers at the University of California in San Diego have found that that calorie counting can lessen concentration and negatively impact an individual’s ability to focus.

Main author Aimee Chabot said: "If you're counting calories, seemingly innocuous reminders of tempting, high-calorie food - such as an empty donut box in the middle of a conference table - can lead to worse performance on difficult tests of attention and reasoning ability."

The researchers suggest instead that “simpler strategies”​ such as avoiding products with added sugars may be more effective.

Negative labelling?

Various European countries have adopted or are considering colour-coded labelling systems aimed at encouraging healthy eating (see here​ and here​). Could such  systems - which brand foods with a high sugar, salt, or fat content red  - constitute negatively-focused health campaigns?

According to nutritionist Carrie Ruxton, the UK system is generally positive because most consumers have the “wit and intelligence​” to understand that red-labelled products should be eaten only occasionally.

However, she identifies two problems with the traffic light system: “First, the amber category is too broad so food manufacturers might make ingredient changes to make their products healthier but because they are still stuck in the amber category, the consumer is none the wiser. Secondly, the values are based on 100 grams so products like Marmite, which are eaten in very small quantities, rate high for salt content.”

“The most important thing for any health campaign or advice is to improve individuals’ self-efficacy so that people can monitor their own diet and make appropriate choices; give them reasons for eating nutritious food.”

Source: Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Published online 1 December 2013,
'The ironic effects of weight stigma'
Authors: B. Major, J. Hunger et al.

Source: The Society for Personality and Social Behavior
Presented at SPSB Symposium, February 28, 2015 : Challenging Misconceptions About the Psychology of Food Choice 
'Distracted by Donuts?: The Cognitive Strain of Calorie Counting may Undermine Focus and Work Performance'​ 
Authors: Aimee Chabot et al.

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