Overweight Women Face Double Discrimination in Workplace


Slender women are preferred by many as “the face” of a company

Recently, Childhood Obesity News looked at one of the many reasons to help children maintain normal weight. Researchers have presented convincing evidence that obese boys will grow up to earn less, and that childhood obesity can affect their income-generating power in about the same way as the lack of an undergraduate degree—in other words, quite severely. Obese women, it turns out, face a double penalty.

It is well known that an income gap still exists based on gender, and women somehow end up being paid less than men in comparable jobs. Being overweight leads to the existence of another de facto penalty that is not written down in any human resources department policy manual, but that somehow just happens.

Inequality is Old News

Actually, this is not even news, we are told by NPR’s Rebecca Hersher. She describes a decade-old study by John Cawley of Cornell University:

Back in 2004, a landmark study found that a 65 pound increase in a woman’s weight is associated with a 9 percent drop in earnings. The authors of the study noted that, in terms of wages, the “obesity penalty” basically amounted to losing three years of experience in the workplace.

More recently, another study has added nuance to the issue. Jennifer Shinall, the study’s author and an assistant professor of law at Vanderbilt Law School, was curious about a few things. Is it possible that obese women choose of their own free will to work at lower-paying jobs? Or that obese women are less productive, which would, in the employer’s eyes, justify lower pay? Or could it be that women are discriminated against on the basis of their looks?

Corporate Preference for a Thin Public Face

Contact with the public is often part of occupations higher on the pay scale, and slimmer people fit the image that most companies want to project. In the upper executive echelons, there are important meetings with the power players from other companies, and the female who does not have a sleek physique will probably never get through the doors.

A cashier in a chain store also faces the public, and so do many other types of workers. Morbidly obese women in positions in which they interact with customers make almost 5 percent less than leaner women with the same job descriptions.

For NBC News, Bill Briggs reported on Shinall’s work and brought out some salient points:

Women who are considered obese or morbidly obese…are more likely to be forced into some of the cheapest-paying, most labor-intensive roles. Obese females tend to occupy lower-paying, more-strenuous jobs in less-visible corners of the U.S. workforce when compared to average-sized women and men.

He also emphasized a worrisome contradiction. A lot of poorly-paid obese women are “toiling on their feet, lifting and constantly moving.” In other words, they are getting plenty of exercise and working off plenty of calories. This throws a major monkey wrench into everything that is accepted as true about obesity.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Obese women make less money, work more physically demanding jobs,” SCPR,org, 11/08/14
Source: “Overweight Women Tend To Earn Smaller Paychecks, Study Claims,” NBCNews.com, 10/22/14
Image by techedlive


The Cookie Monster Influence

cookie monster (O'Connell)In recent years, the reformed Cookie Monster, who saw the light and realized that “cookies are a sometimes food,” has been all over the media. In November of last year, the popular TV show “Last Week Tonight” featured a sketch in which host John Oliver schooled Cookie Monster about the proper British words for things and called him “The Biscuit Monster.” The following month, and providing links to all the relevant video clips, Alexandra Svokos wrote for Huffington Post:

Last year, “Sesame Street” began a curriculum of self-regulation, in which Cookie Monster waits before guzzling cookies. Deborah L. Linebarger at the University of Iowa Children’s Media Lab led a study using these new clips to see if children would mimic Cookie Monster’s good behavior.

Kids watched Cookie Monster demonstrate self-control, and then took the Marshmallow Test, which provides an objective measure of the ability to resist cravings by noting how long a child can hold out against temptation. The Cookie Monster kids did exceedingly well, and were given DVDs to take home so they could watch more scenes of Cookie Monster reiterating the same message.

After 3 weeks of viewing, all children in the study were measured again and the Cookie Monster kids had stronger inhibition skills and a greater ability to focus. One thing is important to remember. Although in this research, the Marshmallow Test was more of a tool and a means to an end, it is a respected entity on its own. The reporter noted:

Studies have shown that children who resist the temptation tend to have better outcomes in life, from higher SAT scores to better health.

Sometimes personality traits are found together in clusters, and what the original Marshmallow Test established was that the ability to resist cravings is somehow linked to an ability to follow instructions, and follow through on challenging tasks, and summon up the patience to do time-intensive ones, and even the ability to interact effectively in social settings.

This may be one reason why people who have avoided obesity get better-paying jobs. There is a perception in the business world that overweight and obese employees don’t do their jobs as well. The Marshmallow Test research suggests that it may not be just a baseless prejudice, and that intangible qualities like attitude really do make a difference.

Cookie Monster is now everywhere. In January, Cookie Monster and Elmo, another Sesame Street character, appeared on “Entertainment Weekly,” and performed their own versions of popular TV shows like “House of Cards” and “True Detective.” In February, a video was published in which Cookie Monster engaged in Mitch Hedberg-esque short observations like, “Cookie dough is the sushi of desserts.” Also, Cookie Thief, the blue puppet’s first movie, made its debut via the PBS Kids network. Then last month, for the PBS series “Everything But The News,” he launched a career as a Life Coach, a segment described by Mike Vago as “host Steve Goldbloom and a few others laying their self-doubt bare before a well-qualified life coach’s discerning googly eye.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Cookie Monster Pretty Much Loses It After John Oliver Asks Him ‘What’s A Cookie?’,” HuffingtonPost.com, 11/06/14
Source: “Watching Cookie Monster Can Improve A Child’s Self-Control,” HuffingtonPost.com, 12/01/14
Source: “Elmo, Cookie Monster visit EW and parody ‘True Detective,’ ‘Sherlock,’ ‘Scandal’,” EW.com. 01/18/15
Source: “Simply Delicious Shower Thoughts with Cookie Monster,” YouTube.com, 02/18/15
Source: “Let Cookie Monster be your life coach,” AVClub.com, 03/23/15
Image by Michelle O’Connell


Catching Up with Cookie Monster

Who doesn't love the Cookie Monster_The conjunction of two topics, food and children, is where Cookie Monster lives. Although unnamed, he was present from the first episode of Sesame Street 45 seasons ago, and went on to become famous for devouring anything edible or inedible—but especially cookies. By 2006 the world was changing, and the childhood obesity epidemic was beginning to occupy a large part of the public’s headspace. Cookie Monster and other Sesame Street characters began to tell kids about healthful eating habits.

The next year, in a revolutionary move, Cookie Monster appeared on Martha Stewart’s TV show to announce the epiphany he had experienced—that “cookies are a sometimes food.” In early 2011, Childhood Obesity News mentioned Cookie Monster’s appearances on various radio and TV programs to reinforce the new message of moderation. Surprisingly, there was controversy. While many people believed that the fuzzy blue creature set a wonderful example for kids, others voiced anti-Cookie Monster sentiment similar to the disdain felt for a flip-flopping politician.

We also mentioned how a pair of scholars, Daniel MacFarland and Heili Pals, offered a tongue-in-cheek explication of the inner conflict experienced by an individual torn between two psychological imperatives: to moderate his cookie-eating behavior and to eat all the cookies in the world. In another post, we discussed the probably sarcastic demand made by critic Erica Palan who insisted that, along with junk food advertising and birthday cakes, “Cookie Monster must go!”

Continuing Evolution of Cookie Monster

More recently, for The Guardian, Sarah Shemkus related the expansive plan developed by Sesame Workshop to bring the monster’s new philosophy even further into the limelight. One major step was to partner with the Produce Marketing Association to create an initiative called Eat Brighter, aimed directly at the reduction of childhood obesity.

One of the first companies to get on board was Sunkist, with a plan to market oranges in Sesame Street-themed packages. Shemkus explains:

Sesame Workshop will license characters such as Big Bird, Elmo and Cookie Monster to fruit and vegetable suppliers free of charge for two years. Such deals would usually be worth millions of dollars to Sesame Workshop…So far, about 25 companies have signed the licensing agreement to use Sesame Street branding on their products.

Bolthouse Farms and East Coast Fresh are two more companies committed to selling fruits and vegetables via Sesame Street branding. Historically, advertising that features cartoon characters and other child-friendly figures has been very successful. With those characters on the packages, junk food flies off the shelves into shopping carts. The theory is that the same strong impetus ought to work well for selling healthful, low-calorie snacks. Optimism is bolstered by studies proving that a child can adapt to a new food after as few as five tries.

There are, of course, counter-arguments. One is pragmatic, based on early studies that seem to indicate that although character-based marketing works well for highly processed, calorie-filled products, it is less effective when applied to healthful foods. Other objections are based on principle, and a reluctance to see the environment become even more thoroughly saturated with advertising. Shemkus quotes Josh Golin, of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood:

If we tell kids to eat based on what characters tell you to eat, it’s not a winning battle in the long run. From the perspective of overall wellbeing, we really need to try and reverse the sway that characters have over kids.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Me eat vegetable: Cookie Monster wants kids to snack healthier,” TheGuardian.com, 10/04/14
Image by ღ ℂℏ℟ḯʂ ღ


Overweight Kids Face Salary Struggles Later On

Obese snowman, Vera

Childhood Obesity News has been looking at how large corporations and small companies try to keep their employees healthy. No doubt this effort is partly for altruistic reasons, but the economic reality is that insurance costs a lot, and the more the insurer has to pay out for health care, the higher the premiums become. Employers have gotten into the habit of passing along more of the cost to workers who are perceived as not taking good care of themselves.

That’s not the only way in which obese people are penalized in the workplace. It turns out, they suffer from lower salaries as well.

Obesity’s Cost—To One’s Salary

In Sweden, researchers from three universities undertook a large study of the earning potential male subjects in the military, whose results were reviewed next to comparable data sets from the United Kingdom and the United States and found to be similar. The researchers concluded that being obese is the practical equivalent, in salary terms, of not having an undergraduate degree.

It has been proven that overweight and obese people earn 16 percent less than their normal-weight counterparts. The study authors draw a parallel to the education penalty. If it takes three years of college to earn a BA, and each year of schooling translates into a 6 percent increase in income later on, the penalty in terms of real-life earnings would be 18 percent. In other words, both types of people—the obese and the ones without degrees—make significantly lower wages as adults.

The comparison may seem strained. But consider that the public has long been familiar with the idea that people with some high school education, or just a high school diploma, make less money than people with academic credentials. The same situation exists for overweight and obese people, but the situation is a newer discovery.

(In the Swedish study, all the subjects had enlisted in the army between 1984 and 1997. The follow-up information about long-term results was gathered in 2003, when they were between 28 and 39 years old.)

Only Early-Onset Obesity Lowers Salaries

Interestingly, the obesity penalty does not apply to men who gain weight later in life. Wage inequality is only suffered by those who were already overweight or obese in their teens. Apparently, some personality characteristics are aligned with either obesity or how a person develops in reaction to the societal attitude toward it.

The connection with personality was made by looking back at the tests administered at enlistment time, which provided psychologists with information “about the soldiers’ cognitive skills (such as memory, attention, logic and reasoning) and their non-cognitive skills (such as motivation, self-confidence, sociability and persistence).” For The Economist, another writer explained the “obesity penalty” like this:

They reckon that discrimination in the labour market is not that important. Neither is health. Instead they emphasize what psychologists call “noncognitive factors” – motivation, popularity and the like. Having well-developed noncognitive factors is associated with success in the labour market. The authors argue that obese children pick up fewer noncognitive skills—they are less likely, say, to be members of sports teams or they may face discrimination from teachers.

Paul Nystedt, one of the study authors, interprets this as an urgent need for government intervention in the lives of the young, because…

…children and adolescents are arguably less able to take future consequences of their actions into account. These results reinforce the importance of policy combating early-life obesity in order to reduce healthcare expenditures as well as poverty and inequalities later in life.

Exactly. The best way to eliminate these conflicts over income inequality, lifestyle penalties, privacy issues, and every other related problem, is to raise kids who are not obese as children, as teens, or adults.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “One big problem,” Economist.com, 10/07/14
Source: “Note to young men: fat doesn’t pay
Springer.com, 09/23/14
Image by sikeri

The Corporate Obesity Monitors

Cubicle PanoramaToday’s kids have a lot to cope with. Just like the members of previous generations, they must achieve academic success and jump through all the other traditional hoops in order to enjoy the independence of having jobs when they grow up. On top of that, the stigma of obesity can prevent an applicant from being hired. Once a person is hired, it’s increasingly likely that the employer will play the role of nanny in a way that may be uncomfortably intrusive.

Childhood Obesity News  has been looking at how companies try to lower health care costs by incentivizing healthful behavior and chastising workers for their unhealthful lifestyles. Katherine Reynolds Lewis, researching a story for CNN, learned:

Eight primary risks can drive up health care costs and lead to diseases: smoking, sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy diet, excessive alcohol use, lack of preventive screenings, patient non-compliance, inadequate sleep, and poor stress management.

Kathleen Kingsbury reported for Reuters on the rapid growth, within a few short years, of the penalty model. A 2011 survey done by a human resources firm called Towers Watson revealed that 19 percent of companies already penalized people for bad habits by setting higher deductible thresholds or higher premiums. By 2014, nearly 40 percent of large American companies had adopted the practice.

Kingsbury discovered that employers had become very aggressive about discouraging high cholesterol counts and excess weight. The Obesity Action Coalition learned that 5,000 companies required employees to participate in wellness programs in order to be eligible for the full health benefits package. Of their employees, 67 percent had to meet weight standards. Also, positive reinforcement seemed to have gone out of style. Kingsbury wrote:

Almost 60 percent of these workers received no coverage that paid for fitness training, dietitian counseling, obesity drugs or bariatric surgery to help achieve a body mass index under 25, which is considered healthy.

Conscienhealth, a company located in Pittsburgh, advises employers on obesity programs. Founder Ted Kyle noted that some corporate programs verged on discrimination. Even the most well-intentioned interventions can cause resentment. Kingsbury quoted an interesting example of pushback:

Mark Rothstein, a lawyer and bioethics professor at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, chooses to pay a higher annual premium rather than complete a health questionnaire for his employer, calling it a “privacy tax.”

Another thing Katherine Reynolds Lewis found was that a workplace wellness program succeeds best in a corporate culture where there is a certain level of trust:

Rewards or penalties around healthy behavior must be given in the context of information, interventions, and programs that make it possible for employees to reach their health goals. Programs that are personalized to the workers’ personalities, health risks, and other variables are more likely to be successful—but are also harder to administer.

That last sentence is where problems lurk that mess up the best efforts made by organizations of all kinds and in all places. Personalized programs always work best, whether in a first-grade classroom with one teacher and two aides for five students, or a corporate gym with a professional trainer available for consultation.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Coming to a workplace near you: Fines for being fat?,” CNN.com, 04/15/13
Source: “How your company is watching your waistline,” Reuters.com, 11/13/13
Image by brownpau

Corporate Obesity Consciousness

Cubicle Life

Yesterday’s subject was the decreasing tolerance shown by companies for risky health practices among their employees. For her report for CNN, Katherine Reynolds Lewis consulted several experts, including Jim Winkler of the consultancy firm AON Hewitt. His job is to help human resources departments figure out who they should hire and how to keep employees compliant with corporate policy. This is how she capsulized his message:

Eight primary risks can drive up health care costs and lead to diseases: smoking, sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy diet, excessive alcohol use, lack of preventive screenings, patient non-compliance, inadequate sleep, and poor stress management. Rather than tackle all eight at once, an employer should assess where the greatest risks and costs exist among their employees and go from there.

Cigarette smoking was an obvious problem to start with for most companies. It’s considered okay to penalize people who smoke, because they are making a choice and could theoretically stop smoking, even if the effort is difficult and expensive. In the eyes of many people, being a smoker and being overweight are equated, because both are presumably under the person’s control.

Being obese is different, though. For one thing, obesity can result from a number of conditions other than overindulgence in food. For another, the standard Body Mass Index measurement system is not an infallible indicator of medically dangerous excess poundage. And while many people have quit smoking for good, long-term studies of weight loss show that weight returns in many cases. Apparently, getting over food addiction is harder than getting over nicotine addiction. Keep in mind that, according to many people who are in a position to know, nicotine is a drug more difficult than heroin to kick.

Make Weight Loss a Game

Companies that try to incentivize healthy behaviors may find the rewards they offer are not quite up to the task. Threats and penalties can incite a spirit of resentment that sours employee-management relations. A company called Keas popularized the idea of “a fun and social rewards-based approach that combines games, achievable goals, healthy habit building, and small coworker teams that support health goals.” Lewis notes:

A case study Keas conducted at a Florida hospital found that 46% of employee participants improved their fresh produce intake and exercise, 16% improved their stress level, and 30% lost a modest amount of weight.

For a while there it looked as if they were onto something. But that short description should send up red flags. For any case study to depend on self-reporting is a built-in liability. Maybe 46% of the participating workers did eat more fresh produce and exercise more often, or maybe they were just being polite, giving answers that would satisfy their bosses’ expectations. Self-evaluated stress levels are a tricky kind of data, and what exactly is “a modest amount of weight”? Besides, employees soon lost interest in the gimmicky approach, and gamification was out. Today, the website of Keas, an “integrated benefits solution for self-insured employers,” has a very staid appearance.

Lewis also describes the Global Corporate Challenge,  participated in by such behemoth companies as Rolls Royce and Warner Brothers:

Teams of employees compete in their virtual progress walking around the world… At the end of previous years’ challenges, participants lost an average of 9.9 pounds; 66% reported decreased stress; and of those with high-risk blood pressure, 54% had reached low-risk levels.

Results from this program sound more impressive, with the precise figure of 9.9 pounds and a measurable factor like blood pressure in the statistical mix. Even though a person’s level of mental and emotional stress can only be self-reported, still 66% attainment of stress reduction is a respectably high number. The team approach is meant to give each person the chance to achieve her or his “personal best,” and also to encourage “friendly competition and accountability to their colleagues.” It is not too late for a company to register for this year’s GCC. The website says:

For a period of 100 days starting on 27 May 2015, hundreds of thousands of employees around the world will compete in teams of seven as the GCC takes them on a journey that will increase their physical activity levels and improve their diet and the quality of their sleep.

Beyond the 100 days, the GCC provides a 12-month platform to ensure that learning and positive habit formation continues throughout the year.

For more about how businesses are working to cut costs by encouraging employee health, stay tuned.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Coming to a workplace near you: Fines for being fat?,” CNN.com, 04/15/13
Source: “Program Overview,” GetTheWorldMoving.com, 2015
Image by herval

Another Reason to Avoid Obesity: The Job Market

New Fitness Center & Locker Room

It is very hard to convince children of anything connected with the future. Reason doesn’t work, because the thoughts of a child or teenager just don’t project into the future. Predicting that a child’s life will be ruined by a facial tattoo, a drug habit, or 300 extra pounds is pretty much an exercise in futility.

An adult can issue dire warnings, backed up with statistics, about how much harder it is for an obese person to land a job. A kid will think, “Okay, I’ll get a job as a circus fat man. No problem.” A teenager with think, “My mad skilz as a virtual reality game developer will bring me wealth and fame, no matter how much I weigh.” Or possibly, “I’ll just marry somebody rich who will love my sense of humor and feel honored to pay my way through life.”

Obesity and Job Hunting

On the employment front, the news is getting worse and worse. Not only is it difficult to convince companies to make a hire in the first place, but retaining a job is something no one can take for granted. A couple of years ago, corporate America really started to encourage healthy living to lower insurance costs. Over 80 percent of American companies were already offering incentives, like discount gym memberships and free health screenings, to employees in an effort to persuade them to improve their physical well-being.

Some companies penalized smokers with slightly higher insurance premiums, and this was seen as unfair by many. Others saw the move as ultimately fair because smokers raised the overall rates for everyone in the health insurance pool. In general, positive rewards did not generate much enthusiasm or participation, and were not working out satisfactorily. Corporate America became impatient and decided to try penalties instead. Obesity became the next obvious target for harm reduction, because health care costs for the co-morbidities associated with obesity are so high.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis interviewed several experts for CNN. The Downey Obesity Report, which provides updates on science and public policy as related to obesity, was disappointed with positive incentive programs. Publisher Morgan Downey told the reporter:

These programs, when it comes to obesity and weight management, are simply not very effective. All the studies have shown a very marginal weight loss over 12 months. The best scientists and clinicians in the world have trouble getting these conditions under control. Why do we think HR can do it?

Although the majority of American adults are overweight or obese, Downey found no clinically proven treatment protocols for obesity, and quoted studies showing that most people who do lose weight will regain it within five years. Lewis also spoke with Cornell University public policy professor John Cawley and reported:

A recent study of a workplace program that offered financial incentives for losing weight to 2,635 workers found only modest weight loss and a high dropout rate.

It is well known that, nationwide, more than half of every year’s total health care bill comes from conditions that could be avoided by better diet, exercise, and stress management practices. So companies started cracking down on unhealthy living. Lewis related how in 2013, the CVS Caremark corporation instituted a $600 penalty for workers who failed to report “biometric data such as weight, body fat, blood sugar, and cholesterol” in annual screenings.

AON Hewitt, a human resources consultancy firm, surveyed nearly 800 companies and found that more than half of them planned to start charging penalties similar to those used by Caremark. Because such companies typically pay over $10,000 per year for each employee’s insurance, they felt well within their rights to levy such penalties.

(to be continued….)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Coming to a workplace near you: Fines for being fat?,” CNN.com, 04/15/13
Image by @first_sight

More of Dr. Pretlow’s Conference Presentations

posterOne week ago, Childhood Obesity News looked back at some of Dr. Pretlow’s presentations to various professional groups, leaving off in October of 2010, at the Royal College of Physicians National Obesity Forum. Today the retrospective continues. We already mentioned some, but not all, of the ideas included in his plenary session presentation, “Why Are Children Overweight?

If Dr. Pretlow has made this point once, he has made it a hundred times: knowledge about healthful eating does not help much. Kids need to know this stuff, but given the current state of technology, all they really need to know is how to look it up. Yes, a bedrock of information is essential, and one function of any fitness device or application is to deliver specialized information in easily understandable form, to someone who needs it now.

Whatever the goal—weight loss of overall health improvement—data is key. At the same time, it is no panacea. To possess information is what might be called a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition. Something else has to be added to the mix.

Schools can teach good nutrition in every grade, K-12, but there will still be obese children, and the reason is not theory-based, but utterly pragmatic. The thousands of kids who respond to the Weigh2Rock website have made it clear. Information about vitamins and calories is not what these kids need. They’ve had it up to here with statistics.

What Obese Kids Need to Lose Weight

Obese kids need the same things that adult addicts need: the motivation to become unhooked, and the tools for the job. Influencing motivation is tricky, because it is highly individual. Coerced motivation can break down at any time, for a number of reasons.

Even when extrinsic motivation is introduced more softly, it is still unreliable. A person who can be persuaded one way can subsequently be persuaded in another direction. To be effective, motivation has to be found inside a person, not grafted on from the outside. (We will say more soon about therapies designed to help people get in touch with their motivation.)

Meanwhile, tools are a different matter. Skills and techniques can definitely be taught in a coherent way. Techniques and skills are easily learned (although perhaps not easily mastered). There are ways to resist cravings, and ways to say “no” to oneself. There are ways of responding to sadness, boredom, and stress that do not involve food. There are ways to stop indulging in mindless, unconscious behaviors. Many life skills can be purposely acquired and eventually perfected, which is the mission of the W8Loss2Go smartphone app.

The Obesity Society, 2010

In the same month, October 2010, Dr. Pretlow could also be found (and seen and heard) at the Obesity Society’s 28th Annual Scientific Meeting. This major event for obesity professionals is…

…a forum for increasing knowledge, stimulating research, and promoting better treatment for those affected by this disease.

One feature of such gatherings is the opportunity to display graphic teaching aids called posters, including the one created by Dr. Pretlow, titled “Food Addiction in Children.”

That same busy month included a keynote address to the Women’s Sports Foundation in Washington state, an organization of whom Dr. Pretlow says, “They embraced the food addiction concept. They want to reach out to sad, isolated, obese kids… It was a good group.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Image by Weigh2Rock

Happiness and Heaviness

Happiness is a Full Stomach

Childhood Obesity News has mentioned before that the young people taking part in the pilot studies of the W8Loss2Go smartphone app are strangely unexpressive about their unhappiness.

This is puzzling because Weigh2Rock, Dr. Pretlow’s immensely helpful and popular website, is living proof that, under some circumstances, kids will talk about their unhappiness and struggles in very great detail. Maybe the anonymity makes the difference.

But while children and teenagers are not always the most articulate witnesses of their own lives, there is a source of information in the memoirs of grownups who recall what it was like to be obese children. Other adults, who were normal-weight children and became obese in their adult years, share at least some experiences and feelings with obese children, so it is possible to extrapolate back to the similarities they share with younger people.

A Study of Misery and Food

Researchers learned about the role of food in emotions in a roundabout way through a study funded by NASA for the benefit of future astronauts, who need to remain in a good mood throughout an extraterrestrial mission. When people responsible for doing important jobs are confined together in tiny spaces, their mental health is of the utmost importance. Should an effort be made to provide spacecraft crews with specifically designated comfort foods?The surprising answer from the University of Minnesota, according to the study, published in the journal Health Psychology, is—apparently not.

The researchers signed up 100 volunteers and showed them depressing film shorts (scenes from movies with depressing plots or moments). Then, the research subjects were fed two different kinds of food. One group received meals that qualify as comfort food—french fries, macaroni and cheese, chocolate treats—and the other group got healthy stuff.

After the films, everyone filled out questionnaires designed to assess their emotional conditions. We must keep in mind that self-reporting is always an iffy proposition. Also, in a bottom line that has almost become a joke, the study ended up recommending further research. But given those caveats:

The study concluded that we believe comfort foods provide us with some type of mood benefits, but there’s really no difference from eating other foods or no food at all.

The science is still out, however, so this conclusion could go into the “Everything You Know Is Wrong” category. There are different kinds of well-being, with different assessment tools. The objective kind is assessed by such standards as BMI measurements, and the subjective kind has to do with how subjects feel. Whether we like it or not, kids feel better when they eat junk food to comfort their emotional malaise. ScienceDaily.com reported on a large study a few years back:

Using data from the National Health Interview Survey in Taiwan—a nationwide survey carried out in 2001—the authors looked at the fast food and soft drink consumption, body weight and level of happiness of 2,366 children aged between 2 and 12 years old.

The study’s key finding was that children who ate fast food and drank soft drinks were more likely to be overweight, but they were also less likely to be unhappy.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Comfort Foods Can’t Relieve Your Misery, Study Says,” CBSlocal.com, 01/15/15
Source: “Junk Food Makes Kids Fatter, But Happier, Study Suggests.” ScienceDaily.com, 04/14/09
Image by Jason Tester

Disease, Obesity, and Motivation

Morbidly ObeseChristopher Bergland is connected with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an organization primarily concerned with the childhood obesity epidemic. Its project is the Healthy Schools Program, which operates in 27,000 American schools. He is also an endurance athlete and coach who…

…aspires to bring you inside the athletic mindset and process of success in sports and competition so that you can better understand your psychology surrounding physical activity and take your life to a higher ground.

Bergland wrote for Psychology Today about the decision the American Medical Association made in 2013 to classify obesity as a disease that is both chronic and complex.

A typical argument for this move was that obesity “impairs normal functioning,” which is part of the definition of disease. Some experts were in favor because it would confirm obesity as a health problem, rather than a character problem. And of course, the disease designation could attract more funding for research, prevention, and treatment, and help patients use their insurance.

Disease Label Causes Psychological Backlash Among Obese

Bergland, like many other health professionals, worried about the law of unintended consequences: the choice to declare obesity a disease could backfire and incur hidden costs. Subsequently, researchers from the University of Richmond and the University of Minnesota vindicated his concern through a study of whether the disease label would inadvertently sabotage the good intentions behind the change.

700 people responded to the opportunity to participate in an online survey. They were divided into 3 groups, with each group assigned to read a differently-slanted article about obesity. One article was a standard neutral public health message; another described obesity as a disease; and the third specifically affirmed that obesity is not a disease. Then all the participants answered questions about their thoughts and behavior.

What the research team found was psychological backlash—a tendency among some obese people to give up and let themselves go. The obesity-as-disease trope encourages body acceptance, also known as fat acceptance, which is not an unalloyed blessing. More ominously, it apparently decreases any motivation that people might have to treat their obesity as an urgent problem or to prioritize the ending of it. Bergland says:

The results of this study show that when obesity is framed as a disease—or not a disease—it has a dramatic impact on an obese persons attitudes towards health, diet, and weight… The researchers found that obese individuals who were told that obesity is a disease actually made less effort to make healthy diet choices and reported less motivation to change their weight.

Like so many studies, this one determined that further research is needed. In the soft sciences, a very large number of studies share that recommendation. In a way, this is good, because it shows open-mindedness and an avoidance of dogma. In another way, it could be seen as a copout, because no one can ever look back and complain that “needs more research” was an incorrect answer.

In the way that really matters for us right now, it is disappointing. If people see disease as something beyond their control and believe they literally can’t help it, any attempt at weight management seems futile, so why bother to try? This is the question that urgently needs answering. And it seems, from all the highly individual stories of motivation, that each person needs to find her or his own answer.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Labeling Obesity as a Disease Increases Body Acceptance but Decreases Motivation to Lose Weight
PsychologyToday.com, 01/28/14
Source: “Obesity is a disease because it impairs normal functioning
Roanoke.com, 07/13/13
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