Anti-Obesity Ads May Trigger Binge Eating

By McCarton Ackerman 09/12/12

Ad campaigns that make people feel stigmatized about their weight can backfire, a new study says.

Ads like these can do more harm than good.
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As US health officials bombard American media with anti-obesity campaigns, their strategy may actually backfire by triggering binge eating. Although these ads intend to educate about the health dangers of being overweight, many people are receiving the message that their weight makes them victims of self-inflicted disease, poor role models for their families and a drag on the economy. This message can cause obese Americans (about 78 million adults and 12.5 million children) to feel depressed, defeated and ashamed—feelings that can lead to self-harming behavior, such as binge-eating. A research team from Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity asked 1,014 volunteers to evaluate 30 public service announcements from several countries aimed at curbing obesity. The least stigmatizing messages included "Eat well. Move more. Live longer," part of a British campaign called Change4Life. The most stigmatizing messages included "Childhood obesity is child abuse," taken from an Australian campaign, as well as "Chubby kids many not outlive their parents," from Georgia's Strong4Life campaign. According to the study findings, the messages that were most effective in encouraging behavior change didn't actually mention obesity at all. "When children or adults are made to feel stigmatized, shamed or teased about their weight, they're likely to engage in binge eating and unhealthy weight-control practices, and to avoid physical activity. We find that people actually cope with stigma by eating more food," says Rebecca Puhl, the Rudd Center's research director and leader of the study. "It reinforces the problem and makes the situation worse."

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.