Getting Rid of Negative Self-Talk in Weight Management

Rebecca L. Pearl, PhD


June 09, 2023

It's common knowledge that the recommended first-line treatment for obesity is behavioral or "lifestyle" intervention, with the goal of losing a modest amount of weight to gain significant health benefits. Unfortunately, when pursuing weight loss, patients often think they need to beat themselves up to stay motivated. I've heard patients call themselves "weak," saying they need to "stop being lazy" and gain some self-control in order to be less of a "failure." They label their bodies as "disgusting" and themselves as "worthless," all because of their weight.

Some patients may worry that if they are kind to themselves or "too accepting" of their bodies, they'll lose motivation to stick with their health behavior goals. In many people's minds, weight management and body- and self-acceptance are mutually exclusive.

What if patients didn't have to choose between the two? That's a question that my colleagues and I have explored in recent research that attempts to reduce weight stigma as part of standard weight-related care.

Misguided Societal View Drives Blame Game

This tendency for people to blame and disparage themselves for their weight is largely driven by the misguided societal view of body weight as an issue of personal responsibility. We're constantly exposed to messages telling us that there's a narrow range of acceptable body weights and sizes, and that if we have enough willpower and discipline to eat healthily and exercise, then we should be able to control our weight. These messages are prevalent in the news and in social media, but often they are communicated in healthcare settings too. Narratives of this kind usually ignore the complex environmental and biological factors that contribute to body size and shape, instead attributing high body weight to laziness and moral failings.

Such messages exemplify weight bias and stigma, or the negative attitudes toward and mistreatment of individuals with a high body weight. Given society's harsh judgment of people with larger bodies, it's no surprise that many individuals internalize these beliefs and stigmatize themselves for their weight. This internalized or self-directed stigma is known to be harmful to mental and physical health.

Contrary to beliefs that negative self-talk and self-blame can be motivators to improve health, we know that high levels of weight self-stigma are linked to unhealthy eating behaviors and less engagement in physical activity, among other poor health outcomes. Thus, ironically, internalizing weight stigma actually undermines efforts to lose weight and maintain weight loss, rather than motivating healthy behavior change.

Combating Internalized Weight Stigma

How do we combat these negative weight messages in our culture and reduce, or ideally prevent, internalization of judgment and blame? Fundamental changes in policies, healthcare practices, and public attitudes are needed to eradicate weight stigma. While such initiatives are underway, there are many individuals who have already experienced and internalized weight stigma and need support now. Interventions such as peer support and psychological counseling may be helpful for challenging negative, internalized beliefs about weight; learning to cope with exposure to weight stigma without internalizing it; increasing self-acceptance and self-compassion; and feeling empowered to fight back against weight bias and stigma.

In our latest study, my colleagues and I tested the long-term effects of including a group intervention to address weight stigma in a standard behavioral weight management program. More than 100 adults with obesity who had experienced and internalized weight stigma were recruited for this clinical trial, which randomly assigned participants to receive either the Weight Bias Internalization and Stigma (Weight BIAS) program combined with standard behavioral weight loss treatment, or standard weight loss treatment alone.

The Weight BIAS program adapted evidence-based psychotherapy techniques to target weight self-stigma, while also providing peer support in a group treatment format. Specific topics included challenging myths and stereotypes about weight; identifying and changing negative thought patterns related to weight and how they affect emotions and behaviors; and responding to experiences of weight stigma.

For example, to challenge negative thoughts (eg, that they were a "failure" because of their weight), patients worked together to examine all of the evidence that proved these beliefs were not true, and came up with ideas for how to revise these thoughts to be less judgmental and more fair and accurate.

Other topics focused on building confidence, increasing body- and self-acceptance, and advocating for themselves and others who are mistreated because of their weight. Many patients shared examples of stigmatizing experiences in healthcare settings and discussed what they could say or do when facing judgment or discrimination from healthcare providers, as well as the importance of finding healthcare providers who treated them with respect. Group discussions also tied in information relevant to health behavior goals, such as overcoming self-consciousness about weight to enjoy physical activity.

Participants were offered weekly group meetings for 20 weeks, followed by a year of less frequent meetings. At the study's end, participants in the group that received weight loss treatment with the Weight BIAS program on average lost about 7% of their starting weight, compared with an average weight loss of about 5% in the group that received weight loss treatment alone. Weight losses of these magnitudes are known to have meaningful health benefits. Results from our study showed comparable improvements in most outcomes across groups, with some added benefit of the Weight BIAS program for certain psychological and behavioral outcomes. These findings challenge the notion that reducing weight stigma and promoting body acceptance will undermine motivation to engage in healthy behaviors and lose weight. We found no such effect.

What Did Participants Say?

When asked questions such as how much they liked the program, what they learned, and how they used the new skills and changed their self-perceptions, participants who received the Weight BIAS program gave higher ratings than those who received only the weight loss treatment. Positive feedback from free-response questions indicated that many participants identified social support as their favorite aspect of the program. Others highlighted how the program helped them to gain "the ability to think differently about myself and other people" and "an understanding that weight really is separate from the person." They also described how they brought together the goals of weight loss and self- and body acceptance, saying, "I am more accepting of me and at the same time more dedicated to obtaining a healthier weight," and "It's okay to be happy the way I am and still want to change."

Participants who didn't receive the Weight BIAS program also shared positive feedback, writing that their favorite part of the program was "being part of such a supportive group of people who can relate to the things that I think and feel" and that they learned "how not to be so hard on myself." This might suggest that even without an intervention specifically for weight stigma, providing respectful, compassionate care and peer support may help patients to feel less alone and to be kinder to themselves.

Our study results suggest that reducing negative self-talk and internalized beliefs about weight certainly won't undermine treatment outcomes and may have some benefits beyond standard weight loss treatment. At the same time, we also all need to do our part to change how society views and treats people with larger bodies and prevent the harms of experiencing and internalizing weight stigma.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health under award number K23HL140176. The content is solely the responsibility of the author and does not necessarily reflect the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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