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August 5, 2010

Weight Loss Campaigns Can Backfire

Even well-meaning weight loss campaigns may end up turning off the people they are meant to inspire. What do you think?

How do overweight and obese people feel about public health and media campaigns aimed at weight loss? Researchers surveyed 142 people and asked them a range of questions to determine how people respond to these types of campaigns, and what methods are effective and which are not. Some questions focused on whether the individuals felt that they themselves were overweight or at health risk because of their weight, how they felt society viewed them because of their weight, and how they would improve public health and media campaigns.

Many felt that the messages in the campaigns were too simplistic, and they too often placed stereotypes or stigmas on overweight people.

The authors found that, while the goal of the campaigns is a well-intentioned one, overweight individuals did not always take it this way. In particular, many felt that the messages in the campaigns were too simplistic, and they too often placed stereotypes or stigmas on overweight people. The people in the study also felt that the emphasis was too often on weight loss itself or the dire health consequences of being overweight, when it should be on how to bring into action the positive lifestyle changes needed to lose weight.

"Scare tactics can be more damaging than any good," one participant was quoted as saying.

Another said, "I think they need to stop putting all the emphasis on fat. I think that insisting that being thin is healthy is actually doing more harm than good. I think there needs to be more emphasis on eating well, exercising, looking after yourself, getting enough sleep at night which a lot of people don't, things like that rather than being thin. Those horrible 'Reduce Your Waist, Reduce your Risk' ads and stuff need to go away."

The results may not reflect how every overweight person may feel about weight loss campaigns. But the study does shed some much-needed light on how these campaigns are perceived by the public they target – and what might be done in the future to produce campaigns that encourage rather than alienate their audience.

The study was led by Samantha L. Thomas at Monash University, Australia, and published in the June 4, 2010 online issue of BMC Public Health.

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