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A Surprising Cause Of Weight Gain

A Surprising Cause Of Weight Gain

If you think of yourself as overweight, you may be at a greater risk of putting on pounds.

Do you look in the mirror and see extra pounds? Do you gripe about your thighs or love handles to your friends? Stop with the negative self-talk: Thinking of yourself as overweight could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

U.K.-based researchers found that those who believed themselves to be overweight were more likely to gain weight, according to a 2015 study in the International Journal of Obesity.

That’s not surprising, says Sharecare’s chief medical officer Keith Roach, MD. “It has been my clinical experience that telling people they need to lose weight isn’t helpful; in fact, it often has the contrary effect, as evidenced by the results of the study.”

The study’s authors analyzed three datasets, two from the U.S. and one from the U.K., comprising about 14,000 people in all. All three datasets followed people for at least seven years.

In two of the three datasets, about 40 percent of people believed they were overweight, and they gained nearly one point more of body mass index (BMI) (a person’s weight-to-height ratio) than those who didn’t see themselves as overweight. In the third study, about two-thirds considered themselves overweight and gained 0.3 BMI points more than those who didn’t. And this happened regardless of whether participants were actually overweight.

“I think that many people who try to lose weight have failed multiple times. Multiple failures leads to a sense of hopelessness,” says Dr. Roach. That’s why he tells patients not to concern themselves with their weight. “I know it sounds odd, but since many people feel their weight is beyond their control, I get them to focus on what is in their control.”

That means two things, he says: Diet and exercise. Even 10 minutes of walking a day helps, and taking a dietary history is a great starting point so you know where you’ve been and where you’re going. “The goal is to feel in charge and improve health,” says Roach.

The study also showed that those who consider themselves overweight were more prone to binge or stress eating. "It may be a form of learned helplessness or even hopelessness. Once a person embraces an identity (such as being overweight) it can feel more like a "trait" and less amenable to change," says psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD.

"Add to that bias and stigma and fat shaming that plague people who are overweight - those negative mood states may contribute to maintaining certain eating habits and patterns including emotional eating," Dr. Durvasula says.

Medically reviewed in August 2019.

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