Women feel more stigma about abdominal fat than men, study says

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According to a new study, women, as compared to men, tend to feel more stigmatized about abdominal fat, regardless of their BMI or weight. It also found that this stigma may also be linked to additional weight gain.

Lead study author Natalie Keirns, M.S., a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Oklahoma State University said, “Some people who struggle with managing their weight may devalue themselves based on external messages from society telling them they are unattractive, self-indulgent or weak-willed because they weigh more.”

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“When these ‘anti-fat messages’ are internalized, people often feel shame, which in turn, may make them vulnerable to weight gain.”

For the study, scientists investigated if internalized weight stigma is related to higher levels of visceral/abdominal fat. They also looked at the relationship between abdominal fat and self-devaluation related to participants’ weight.

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Seventy participants, aged 22 to 39, with an average BMI of 29 and an average of 33% total body fat, participated in the study. An 11-item, self-reported questionnaire was used to assess participants’ internalized weight stigma with scores ranging from one to seven; seven indicating the most weight bias internalization and one indicating the least. Scientists then measured visceral and total body fat.

Among the key findings, the study found that women had higher levels of weight bias internalization than men and that higher levels of internalized weight stigma corresponded to higher levels of visceral fat in women only.

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“Even though men typically, on average, had more of this harmful fat than women, we didn’t see the same relationship with the psychological, social stigma,” Keirns said. “For women, the way we view our bodies and how others view and judge our bodies appears to have negative effects. Even though the women had less visceral adiposity than men, it may be impacting our health more because of the negative way we feel about ourselves.”

The study highlighted the important challenges of weight stigma.

“Clinicians should be aware that weight stigma leads to more stress, higher cortisol levels, a greater likelihood of unhealthy behaviors, lower likelihood of seeking care and generally contributes to more weight gain and worse outcomes,” said Dr. Chiadi Ericson Ndumele, American Heart Association volunteer expert.

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