Does fat shaming work? New research has the answer

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Does fat shaming work: an illustration exploring concept of does fat shaming work. A sad plus size person in swimwear is being mocked by a number of hands , showing her with hands what to eat and how to live.

Does fat shaming work? New research has the answer

If you somehow think shaming overweight or obese people helps them lose weight, here's a news flash: It doesn't. Here is a round-up of 15 recent research papers by Johanna Younghans that answers the question – does fat shaming work? – by proving why the treatment for obesity can’t adopt a “one size fits all” approach.

Johanna Younghans, University of Michigan

What is fat shaming?

Passive or active fat shaming involves the criticism and harassment of overweight or obese people about their weight and/or eating habits to make them feel ashamed. Fat shaming aims to get overweight or obese people to lose weight, exercise more, or eat better.

Lena Suarez-Angelino

1. Low-income communities more likely to face childhood obesity

In answering the question, does fat shaming work, Science is with James Corden. Fat shaming does not work, and it shouldn’t make a comeback, and it definitely won’t solve the obesity epidemic. Through countless published scientific papers, research has continually exposed the complexity of obesity and being overweight, which affects more than 1.9 billion people worldwide. That research has led experts to conclude that fat shaming doesn’t work, and the potential treatment options for obesity must go further than simply prescribing diet and exercise as a cure.

For years, scientists have researched the problem of obesity and fat shaming. Their research has contributed to the mounting evidence of factors that demonstrate obesity is often beyond an individual’s control. Factors such as poverty, health care access, education, genetics, hormones, and chronic illnesses can all play roles in the chronic condition’s development and existence.

More research and clinical trials are needed to find answers, but while we wait, researchers say that fat shaming does not work. Fat shaming, which has been proven to cause depression and increase the risk of suicide, should never be used to treat obesity.

Below, is a round-up of recent research and articles on obesity that seek to find better solutions to address the issue of obesity,  help those trying to overcome it, and put the question – does fat shaming work – to rest.

Using a model created from data on over 111,000 students, research shows that the higher poverty rates are in an area, the higher the rate of obesity is among children living there. Although obesity rates were higher among African-American and Hispanic kids, the relationship disappeared when factoring in family income, according to the study published in Childhood Obesity.

Authors concluded that access to fewer resources like recreational programs, parks, and full-service grocery stores appears to have a greater impact on the nation’s childhood obesity rate than race. Fat shaming does not work. Poverty will not be solved by fat shaming.

2. Weighing the facts: the tough truth about weight loss

Here’s a sobering statistic: roughly 90% of people who lose a lot of weight eventually regain just about all of it.

Why is it so hard to keep the weight off? The reason is both simple and complex. Gaining a significant amount of weight doesn’t just puff up our fat cells; it changes our biology. Our bodies act as if that higher weight is our normal weight, defending it like a mother embracing her newborn. Does fat shaming work against individual fat cells? No!

Fat shaming does not work; in other words, it does not help encourage people to lose weight. The reverse effect is actually true: fat shaming often leads to weight gain.

3. Resisting food temptation isn’t futile, but obesity may make it harder

Food-related cues come at us from morning until night, and some of us seem powerless to resist temptation. Others, however, can ignore them or stop themselves from responding.

Now, a new study in rats may help explain these differences in people — and how they relate to the obesity epidemic that affects one-third of all people worldwide. 

The study involved both rats that came from a line that had been specially bred for a tendency to become obese and rats from a line with normal weight tendencies. The obesity-prone rats in the study were fed diets that didn’t allow them to become obese. But even so, they showed much stronger food-seeking behaviors in response to food-related cues that they’d learned to associate with a food treat compared with rats whose family trees were lean.

Those differences, researchers found, extended deep into the rodents’ brains, into the cells of the “reward center” called the nucleus accumbens.

When obesity-prone rats learned to recognize a certain sound as the cue for food availability, a key receptor appeared more frequently on the surface of certain cells in the reward center. But similar changes in this receptor were not seen in obesity-resistant rats.

What’s more, when researchers used a drug to block the receptors, called CP-AMPA receptors or CP-AMPARs, the food cue no longer triggered the obesity-prone rats to seek out food — even though they still showed signs that they recognized the cue.

It was as if they had switched from eagerly trying to trace the smell of pizza and go find its source to smelling it and not even getting up to find it.

Although a drug that could do the same for humans isn’t yet available,  researchers hope their work will help form the basis for a new understanding of human obesity’s roots in our genes, learned behaviors, and the brain.

4. Clues to obesity’s roots found in brain’s quality control process

Deep in the middle of our heads lies a tiny nub of nerve cells that play a key role in how hungry we feel, how much we eat, and how much weight we gain. Around the clock, they produce several hormones that help regulate these crucial functions.

A recent discovery sheds light on how they get produced — and more importantly, what can go wrong and raise the risk of overeating and obesity.Published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, the findings could pave the way for new approaches in treating forms of obesity, especially those with genetic roots.

5. Discovery in mice could remove a roadblock to more insulin production

By the time someone gets diagnosed with diabetes — in either of its forms — the insulin-making factory inside their body has ground to a halt or at least a slow crawl. And in people with obesity, insulin supply often struggles to keep up with demand — especially if the person eats a typical Western diet.

But a recent discovery, published in Nature Immunology, could provide new options for reusing those factories. It could offer new pathways to ramping up insulin supply to get metabolism back on track in people with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes and obesity,

6. Brain protein that helps regulate body fat may guide anti-obesity drugs

In a Science Advances study, scientists at Michigan Medicine and Vanderbilt University identified the function of a protein called melanocortin 3 receptor (or MC3R) that had puzzled metabolism researchers for more than two decades.

The function of this protein, previously not well understood, may have implications both for treating obesity and understanding weight gain during pregnancy and menopause and opens new doors for developing anti-obesity drugs.

7. Does gut bacteria lead to obesity?

Researchers studying microscopic creatures inside our bodies reported possible links between obesity and out-of-balance microbes in recent years. But research, which pooled data from many of those past studies, disputes the idea that extra pounds may stem from an imbalance in the microbiome.

The study, published in mBio, finds no clear common characteristic of the microbiomes in the digestive systems of people who are obese compared to those of a healthy weight.

But to researchers Marc Sze, PhD, a U-M postdoctoral research fellow  U-M microbiology professor Patrick Schloss, Ph.D., this news is exciting. It means that there’s much more complexity to discover the relationship between our microbiome and our health.

8. Will weight loss before conception make mom and baby healthier?

A woman’s overall health before conception can impact her pregnancy and the health of her fetus.

Amy Rothberg, M.D., Ph.D., an endocrinologist at Michigan Medicine, says infants of overweight mothers carry a lifetime risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Evidence proposes that obesity starts at the earliest stages of human development.

A clinic trial, run by Michigan Medicine, hopes to determine how weight loss prior to pregnancy affects maternal and fetal health.

9. Chronic short sleep associated with adolescent obesity

According to new research older children and teenagers may have a higher risk of obesity if they consistently don’t get enough sleep.

The study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, found the highest levels of obesity in adolescents who weren’t sleeping enough night after night.

10. For adolescents, pre-pregnancy BMI directly linked to excess pregnancy weight gain

Weight gain during pregnancy is an issue every pregnant woman faces. Research shows that pre-pregnancy body mass index, BMI, and ethnicity might signal a likelihood of obesity later in life.

Published in PLOS ONE, researchers analyzed medical records of more than 1,000 women who gave birth between the ages of 15 and 24 and concluded that physicians caring for adolescent women should use BMI before pregnancy as a strong predictor of whether a young mother will gain too much weight during pregnancy, a risk factor for later obesity.

"Does fat shaming work?" According to experts, fat shaming does not work. Making overweight and obese people feel bad about their size does not encourage them to shed excess pounds – and may even make them put on more weight

University College London

11. Moms of obese children use different words to restrict eating

In a small study, researchers found caregivers of children with obesity may be more likely to use direct statements to restrict a child’s eating.

Researchers at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital videotaped 237 mothers and children who were seated alone in a room and presented with different foods, including chocolate cupcakes. Direct commands like “only eat one” was more often used among mothers of children with obesity while eating dessert, according to the findings published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

Meanwhile, mothers of children who weren’t overweight were more likely to guide children with indirect comments such as, “That’s too much. You haven’t had dinner.”

12. Could desserts and fast food on kid’s clothing influence future diets?

Frosted cupcakes, sprinkled donuts, and chocolate chip cookies — are all on the list of foods that pediatrician Megan Pesch, M.D., suddenly found difficult to avoid. Not at the bakery or grocery store, but on children’s clothing.

The developmental-behavioral pediatrician, who studies childhood eating behaviors, wondered how prominent the trend was and whether it had implications for children’s eating habits.

Her analysis, published in the journal Eating Behaviors, looked at 3,870 clothing items from four major children’s retailers. One in 11 apparel items included food graphics; two-thirds of those foods were unhealthy, while others had healthier options, such as fruit. A third of the items featured food graphics “having fun,” such as a pizza slice riding a skateboard.

13. Full, but still feasting: how the urge to eat overpowers the signal to stop

Almost everyone knows the feeling. You’re at a restaurant or a holiday meal, and your stomach is telling you it’s full, but yet you keep going.

A recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, explored the mystery of why this happens at the most basic level in the brain in animals. It showed that two tiny clusters of cells battle for control of feeding behavior — and the one that drives eating overpowers the one that says to stop.

14. Fitness vs. fatness: which matters most?

There is a longstanding debate in the research community about the importance of fitness versus fatness in health. Are exercise and improving fitness more important than eating well and maintaining a healthy weight?

For people who are obese, losing weight might be more important to their overall health than focusing on fitness. In fact, evidence shows that exercise alone isn’t an effective way to lose weight. Rather, effective weight loss is mostly about what you eat, though it should also include exercise.

The message that physical activity is more important than managing weight is unhelpful and not true.

15. Study: water intake overlooked in obese individuals

People who are obese and have a higher BMI are more likely to be inadequately hydrated, and vice versa suggests research published in the Annals of Family Medicine.

Although the correlation requires further probing, the lead author noted that hydration has lately been considered a cornerstone of a weight-loss diet.

The more people are exposed to weight bias and discrimination, the more likely they are to gain weight and become obese, even if they were thin to begin with. They’re also more likely to die from any cause, regardless of their body mass index (BMI).

Lauren Vogel


"Does fat shaming work? The short answer is it doesn't work, and the potential treatment options for obesity must go further than simply prescribing diet and exercise as a cure." | Photo: ©nathings / Adobe Stock