Society and the media put great demands on the way we look. Those who struggle with their weight face criticism from all quarters — not least from themselves. But recognizing the fact that you might be heavier than is healthy can actually present problems in itself. According to new research from a team at the University of Liverpool, people who see themselves as overweight or obese are more likely to put on more weight than those who are unaware they are too heavy.
The research — published in the International Journal of Obesity — looked at 14,000 adults in the U.S. and the U.K. who had participated in three earlier studies: the US National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, the UK National Child Development Study and Midlife in the United States. The team chose data from different time periods in adulthood and ascertained each individual's perception of his or her own weight — whether it was accurate or not — and then the subsequent weight gain of each one over time.
It was discovered that those who had previously believed themselves to be overweight were more likely to admit overeating in response to stress and thus gain more weight. "Realizing you are an overweight individual is in itself likely to be quite stressful and make making healthy choices in your lifestyle more difficult," says Dr. Eric Robinson, from Liverpool's Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, "you would hope that making a person aware they are overweight would result in them being more likely to adopt a healthier lifestyle and lose some weight."
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), more than two thirds of adults in the United States are considered to be overweight with half of those considered obese. These figures are echoed in children with one in three between 6 and 19 overweight and one in six obese. For those that struggle with their weight, the new research could be unwelcome reading. "What is important is to tackle stigma in society," says Robinson, "People with a heavier body weight have body image challenges. That is not surprising given the way we talk about weight as a society."
"It is a tricky finding for public health intervention work," he admits. "but the way we talk about body weight and the way we portray overweight and obesity in society is something we can think about and reconsider. There are ways of encouraging people to make healthy changes to their lifestyle that don't portray adiposity as a terrible thing."