Anti-obesity messages: stigma or support?

YALE (US) — A new study examines which public health campaigns motivate people to lose weight, and which come across as stigmatizing. 

With more than two thirds of Americans now overweight or obese, public health campaigns have emerged across the country to promote behavior that can help reduce America’s waistline.

But do the messages communicated by these campaigns help reduce obesity or potentially make the problem worse?

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According to a new study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, the public responds more favorably to obesity-related health campaigns that emphasize specific health behaviors and personal empowerment for health, rather than messages that imply personal blame and stigmatize those who are obese.

Researchers conducted an online experimental study with a national sample of 1041 Americans. Participants viewed campaign messages from national and highly publicized public health campaigns to address obesity. Their findings are published in the International Journal of Obesity.

They were asked to rate characteristics of each campaign as positive or negative and state whether they felt motivated to improve their health or stigmatized by the campaign’s message.

Campaigns rated most favorable and motivating were messages that promoted specific health behaviors:

  • Increased fruit and vegetable consumption, as promoted by the national “5-A-Day” campaign
  • “Learn the facts, eat healthy, get active, take action,” as encouraged by the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign and other more general health messages
  • Campaigns that attempted to instill confidence and personal empowerment regarding one’s health.

Interestingly, note the researchers, campaign messages rated most positive and motivating made no mention of obesity at all.

By contrast, anti-obesity campaigns that already have been publicly criticized for promoting shame, blame, and stigmatization toward individuals struggling with obesity were rated most negatively by the study participants, who rated them as the least motivating for behavior change.

Participants expressed less of an intention to act upon the messages’ content.

Among those campaigns rated, the worst was the Children’s Health Care of Atlanta Campaign to address childhood obesity, which featured billboards portraying obese youth with captions such as “Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid,” and “Chubby kids may not outlive their parents.”

The authors assert that messages intended to motivate individuals to lose weight may be more effective if framed in ways that promote specific health behaviors and confidence to engage in those behaviors, rather than messages that imply personal blame.

“By stigmatizing obesity or individuals struggling with their weight, campaigns can alienate the audience they intend to motivate and hinder the behaviors they intend to encourage,” says lead author Rebecca Puhl, the Rudd Center’s director of research.

“Public health campaigns that are designed to address obesity should carefully consider the kinds of messages that are disseminated, so that those who are struggling with obesity can be supported in their efforts to become healthier, rather than shamed and stigmatized.”

Source: Yale