Eating Mindfully

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People Are Talking...

About weight loss stigma

When it comes to weight loss, it seems like everybody has something to say. Your co-worker swears by Atkins while your slim aunt insists that Weight Watchers is the way to go. Your mother insists, "Just eat less and exercise more" while researchers have demonstrated that weight loss is far more complex. Your friend declares "You don't need to lose weight, you look great the way you are" while your excess weight causes you discomfort. All of the differing opinions on your weight may lead you to think twice before discussing your current weight loss efforts with friends, family, and co-workers.

One of the most common concerns that I hear in the pre-operative bariatric weight loss surgery support group that I lead is: do I tell friends and family that I am planning to have surgery? People are hesitant to disclose this information because of the negative responses that are all too common. "You don't need surgery, just eat less food," "If you got more exercise you would be able to conquer your weight problems," or "Just try a little harder to stick to a diet." For people who struggle with their weight, these overly simplistic approaches to weight loss imply that they are overweight because they are weak-willed, lack self-discipline, or are lazy. This in turn can leave the person feeling not understood and alone. Certainly not the response hoped for when preparing to undergo a major life changing operation.

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During a recent interview with Matt Lauer on the Today Show, Star Jones discussed her decision not to publically reveal that she had undergone weight loss surgery. She cited fears of failure and depression as reasons that she chose to keep her surgery from the media. I wonder if the lack of support and judgments that she may have anticipated from the public contributed to this decision as well? A recent study conducted by Fardouly and Vartanian published in the current issue of the International Journal of Obesity demonstrates that the method of weight loss (surgery vs. diet and exercise alone) influences how people perceive you following weight loss. Specifically, the authors found that following weight loss, people who were reported to have lost weight through diet and exercise were rated as less lazy while people who were reported to have lost weight through surgery were not rated as any less lazy. The negative perceptions and stigma associated with obesity persisted when it was disclosed that a participant underwent weight loss surgery, even when that person had successfully lost weight! No wonder people are hesitant to reveal this personal decision. 

Social support is an important component of successful weight loss, whether you lose the weight through surgery or diet and exercise alone. If you don't tell anyone about your weight loss efforts, then you miss out on the benefits of support. However, telling people about your weight loss efforts may lead to disappointing comments conveying judgment and criticism (and negative emotions can lead us to overeat, which sets the whole cycle in motion). So, what is one to do? A first step is to assess your social support. Is there someone in your life that you feel will be supportive of your weight loss? Who will encourage, rather than disparage, your efforts? Even telling one person who can offer support can enhance your weight loss. Another option is to seek out a support group. Most bariatric surgery centers offer support groups for people both before and after weight loss surgery. Overeaters Anonymous offers free 12-step style groups for people struggling with overeating. Weight Watchers offers on-line and in-person support groups for people participating in their weight loss programs. Mindful eating groups and psychotherapy groups provide additional sources of support. These groups offer people an opportunity to meet with others who share a common goal and are likely to provide social support minus the judgmental attitude. You don't need to go at it alone. 


Alexis Conason, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in practice in New York City and a researcher at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital.


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