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Is Someone Sabotaging Your Weight Loss Goals?

A new study explores how to sidestep "lean stigma" while losing weight.

Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock
Source: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock

You may have heard of “fat stigma,” but have you heard of “lean stigma"?

Fat stigma is when people are judged negatively for being overweight or obese. Lean stigma is when people are judged negatively for their attempts to lose weight or even for successful weight loss.

According to a small, fascinating study by Lynsey K. Romo of North Carolina State University, lean stigma might be more common and more problematic than most of us realize. In the study, 40 people (21 women, 19 men) who lost significant amounts of weight (76.9 pounds on average) reported that some people in their lives tried to “belittle or undermine” their weight loss efforts and results.

When one person in a social group makes a lifestyle change, others in the group can feel threatened and encourage the “changer” to “change back.” The main focus of this study was to examine the communication strategies the participants used to ward off attacks from family, friends, or colleagues. Lead researcher Romo described two sets of skills utilized by study participants—Skills that helped others in their social group save face, and skills that helped people feel more comfortable with the weight loss itself.

Specifically, participants used the following tactics to maintain their weight loss efforts without alienating friends, family, and colleagues:

  • Telling people beforehand about their intention to lose weight, as well as specific reasons for it.
  • Communicating to people in their network that they did not expect them to adopt similar eating habits. (“I’m going to get a salad; you could have a hamburger or whatever you want.”)
  • Eating like the rest of their social group on self-appointed "cheat days."
  • Eating unhealthy foods at group gatherings, but in smaller portions.
  • Eating less before and after a family gathering in order to “fit in” by overeating at the event itself.
  • Accepting food, but not eating it—for example, taking a piece of birthday cake at a work party, indicating they will eat it “later,” then throwing it out.
  • Making it clear that they are not judging others for their eating habits.
  • Describing their weight loss motivation as health-related, to have more energy, or being in training for a race.
  • Avoiding social situations that involve food.
  • Suggesting walks to socialize rather than meeting over meals.
  • Declining invitations to go out to eat because “I’m not hungry.”
  • Claiming to have food allergies or stating that a food “doesn’t agree with me” to explain turning down unhealthy foods.

A few participants spoke up assertively when badgered by family, friends, or colleagues, saying, for example, “It’s my decision.” A few others chose new, more supportive friends to replace old ones. However, most participants consciously managed their responses to keep in step with those in their existing social networks.

It seems a shame that successful “losers” felt that they had to conceal or downplay their weight-loss efforts in order to avoid triggering negative responses from others. However, these strategies did indeed help the participants maintain both their weight loss and their relationships.

Finding effective ways to help people lose weight is important. Excess weight can increase a person's risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, joint problems, and many other adverse health conditions. But losing weight is hard: By some estimates, over 95 percent of those who try are doomed to fail. So anyone with a weight loss goal could potentially benefit from adopting one or more of the communication tactics above. In addition, weight loss groups could add communication skills, and even assertiveness training, to their existing program components.

One possible conclusion I draw from this research is that individuals who are particularly susceptible to peer judgment or who lack support from peers and significant others might be encouraged to join a weight loss support group, such as Weight Watchers, to counter any “lean stigma” from their existing social network.

Grateful thanks to author Dr. Lynsey K. Romo for sending me a pre-publication copy of the paper, "An Examination of How People Who Have Lost Weight Communicatively Negotiate Interpersonal Challenges to Weight Management," in press for the journal Health Communication.

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© Meg Selig, 2017

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