UConn professor finds correlation between negative thoughts and weight problems

Dr. Diane Quinn explains her latest discovery on obesity. Her research focuses on the experiences of members of stigmatized groups, self-related cognitions, behavior and affect. (Zhelun Lang/The Daily Campus)

Negative perceptions of one’s body can affect someone’s ability to lose weight, according to a study by Professor Diane Quinn, Ph.D., of the Psychology Department at the University of Connecticut.

Along with the help of Director at the Rudd Center, Professor Rebecca Puhl, Ph.D., graduate student in the UConn Psychology Department, Bradley Weisz, M.A., and University of Massachusetts student, Young Suh, M.S., they were able to reach a better understanding of how stigma correlates with maintenance of weight loss.

“So the big mystery, the big question in weight loss literature, is ‘why can’t people keep the weight off.’ People are really motivated to lose weight, they put a lot into diets, they are successful at it,” Quinn said. “But then over time, weight tends to come back and often even more weight.”

The participants in the study were people who had initially lost 10 percent of their weight.

The study focused on how to predict which people can maintain weight loss, or if it comes back after it has been lost, and how stigma played into which path they took.

“Our study suggests that – regardless of encountering experiences of weight-based teasing, stigma or unfair treatment – it may be that internalized negative weight-based attitudes and self-blame are particularly detrimental for personal efforts to sustain weight loss,” Puhl said in an article for UConn Today.

A lot of variables were examined, such as how much exercise participants did, how often they weighed themselves and whether they recorded their food intake. Another important variable they took into consideration was the participants’ personal perceptions about their weight: if they believed themselves to be normal weight, overweight or very overweight.

“The significant predictors for whether people maintained their weight or not were internalized stigma—so the more people believed they were a bad person, basically because of their weight, the less likely they were to maintain a weight loss,” Quinn said. “And the other one was, if people saw themselves as overweight—even if we’re controlling for their actual weight—if they see themselves as overweight, they are less likely to maintain a weight loss as well.”

“So these behavioral strategies, which have been shown to help in other research, they’re kind of wiped out when we take into account people’s internalized weight stigma and how they classify themselves,” Quinn said.

This showed the researchers that if someone were to attempt a weight intervention, they must also take into account the mentality of the person and have to intervene on their way of thinking and self-perception.

It’s been found that the negative views people have of themselves have a major impact on weight loss, creating a weight gain instead.

“The very thing that people are afraid of is happening, they’re actually gaining the weight back, even though these are the people who are most afraid of being heavy,” Quinn said.

“I think that usually all of the focus is on how much exercise you’re doing or whether you’re eating a healthy breakfast, which is all good, I wouldn’t want them to stop that, but they also need to focus on this really negative self-talk that people must have for themselves about weight,” Quinn said. “Instead of feeling good, ‘look I went on this diet, I’m doing all of these healthy things, I’m healthier,’ people just keep thinking ‘I’m too fat, I’m too unattractive,’ and that’s not helping them. So working on the cognitive reframing, how people are thinking about themselves and their weight, would probably be helpful.”

In these studies, the researchers found it is often family members, parents or romantic partners who give overweight people a hard time about their weight, which builds up and teaches negative self-talk and internalized stigma.

“You know they’re trying to help them with their weight, but what people are hearing is ‘you’re unattractive or worthless because of your weight,’” Quinn said. “It’s hard for people to get rid of (the internal stigma) as an adult if they’ve been learning and internalizing these things.”

Their findings were published in an article in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine journal on March 1.


Sabrina O’Brien is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached by email at sabrina.o’brien@uconn.edu.