Weight Stigma and “Covesity”
Teasing about weight seems to impede efforts to eat healthy and exercise.
Posted May 30, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- The majority of adults working to lose weight report being mistreated because of their weight, according to a recent study.
- Experiencing weight-related teasing or discrimination is associated with less healthy eating and exercise behaviors and more stress.
- The findings highlight the need for initiatives that curtail weight stigma.
In the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns, quarantines, online school, working-from-home, and other disruptions, weight gain seems to be one additional side effect. Good data on how much additional and unexpected weight people have gained over the last 15 months is hard to come by as of yet. But many scientists and non-scientists alike recognize that “covesity” is probably a real thing.
There are many interrelated reasons for suddenly packing on pounds. Sitting more, snacking more, and being more stressed are three common ones, and all features of pandemic life. Companies promoting weight-loss products and services are anticipating a boom year ahead as people seek to shed the pounds gained.
A study published this week in the journal Obesity collected online surveys from 23,415 adults (mostly women) enrolled in Weight Watchers programs in six different countries: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
More than half of surveyed adults (55-61% depending on the country) said they had been teased, unfairly treated, or discriminated against because of their body weight. Those who reported dealing with this mistreatment had different exercise and eating profiles than those that did not, even taking their actual body size into account. Importantly, these same Weight Watchers members displayed patterns of behavior that tend to impede healthy, sustained weight loss — and may even encourage additional weight gain — like higher levels of stress-induced “comfort” eating.
Those who reported this weight stigma also reported feeling more stressed overall. Psychological stress is especially concerning from a medical perspective, because it cascades into many body organ systems in ways that place people at risk not just for weight gain, but also chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
That weight stigma — experiencing mistreatment from others simply on the basis of not looking as others think they should — sickens is already known by researchers, but mostly on the basis of small and local studies. This new study is significant because it shows how widespread and common feelings of inadequacy, stress, and rejection are among adults who are actively trying to lose weight, and how consistent the findings are across several nations.
The authors, based at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, conclude that their findings underscore the need for global initiatives to curtail weight stigma. As we move forward to deal with the many and complex after-effects of COVID-19, it is one that needs to be on the list.
Lessard, L., Puhl, R., Himmelstein, M., Pearl, R., & Foster, G. (2021). Eating and Exercise‐Related Correlates of Weight Stigma: A Multinational Investigation. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 29(6), 966–970. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.23168