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Canadians’ Feelings About the Causes of Obesity Are Often Harmful to Self-Esteem

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The causes behind weight gain and obesity are complex, but many Canadians still hold negative attitudes and beliefs towards individuals who live with overweight and obesity.

Those attitudes are often held by people living with overweight and obesity themselves. These individuals have often internalised those feelings and blame their own behaviour for their size: an experience called weight-bias internalization (WBI).

According to a new Concordia-led study, these feelings are present in individuals across the weight spectrum. However, they are more pronounced in people with higher body mass index (BMI) scores. And females are more likely to report WBI than males.

Writing in the journal BMC Public Health, the authors note that “44% of Canadians believe behavioural causes are very or extremely important in causing obesity, 38% for environmental causes, 28% for physiological, and 27% for psycho-social causes.”

Those individuals who are more likely to believe in behavioural causes were also more likely to hold negative attitudes towards people with overweight or obesity. These negative attitudes are a concept known as “explicit weight bias”.

“This study looks at how the average person in Canada views not only obesity and people with obesity, but also the views they have about themselves when they view themselves negatively,” said lead author Vida Forouhar. “Looking at this from a public health perspective helps us to better understand these attitudes to inform advocacy initiatives and weight-bias reduction interventions.”

The researchers used data that was previously collected from a 2018 study. The study involved 942 demographically representative English-speaking Canadian adults who completed questionnaires about attitudes towards weight-related issues.

Their secondary analysis looked at answers from three specific questionnaires that measured respondents’ internalisation of negative attitudes about weight, their beliefs about the different causes of obesity, and their explicit weight bias.

Among their findings, the researchers noted that internalisation of WBI, which is the extent to which a person self-stigmatises their own weight and applies negative attitudes towards themselves, was present in every BMI category (normal/underweight, overweight, obesity).

High WBI rates were reported in 20% of those who were normal/underweight, in 29% who were overweight, and in 51% in the group of people who had obesity.

Respondents most commonly endorsed overeating as a cause of obesity (71% of the sample), followed by physical inactivity (67%) and high fat diets (59%) – all behavioural causes. Among the least endorsed were endocrine disorders (35%), repeated dieting (38%) and metabolic factors (41%), which are physiological and psychosocial causes. Beliefs in behavioural causes of obesity were directly associated with explicit weight bias, while beliefs in physiological and psychosocial causes were negatively associated.

“You tend to have more negative attitudes towards people with obesity if you really believe that obesity is mostly a behavioural issue,” Forouhar said.

Forouhar works as a research coordinator in the Montreal Interdisciplinary Laboratory on Obesity and Health. Her co-author Angela Alberga, an associate professor and research chair in the Department of Health, Kinesiology and Applied Physiology, is the lab’s director.

She adds that WBI has been linked to increased symptoms of depression, anxiety, psychological distress, eating disorders, and exercise avoidance in many other studies.

“Our study reflects that weight bias is prevalent everywhere and among everyone, regardless of body shape and size,” she said. “It does not only affect people with obesity. We should be addressing weight bias more systematically rather than simply from a clinical perspective.”

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