For the new study, published online and in the March print issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Major and her team tapped 93 female students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who were an average of 19 years old. Slightly more than half of the women described themselves as being overweight.
Half of the women were asked to read a mock news article titled "Lose Weight or Lose Your Job," while the others reviewed a piece called "Quit Smoking or Lose Your Job." The articles described reasons employers are reluctant to hire those who are overweight or who smoke.
Next, participants presented a five-minute talk explaining the article, facing a video camera. Afterward, they were taken to a nearby room for a break. Candy and crackers were placed in clear view and the women were invited to help themselves.
Women who perceived themselves as overweight ate about 80 calories more of snack food after reading the news article on being overweight than did those who read the article on smoking. But for women who did not consider themselves overweight, calorie intake did not differ depending on which article they read.
The findings suggest that public-health messages need to emphasize the importance of health and exercise, and not focus on weight, Major said. "It's ironic that the fear of obesity and its impact is yet another cause of weight stigmatization," she said.
Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, expressed several reservations about the study. "It was a somewhat contrived experiment and a small sample," he said.
Katz cited other limitations of the study: The participants were all college-age, and potentially more emotionally impressionable; the effect on eating was measured immediately after reading the article and didn't allow time for the participants to put the information into perspective; and there might have been some anxiety about having to produce a summary of the article and be videotaped.
Katz said, however, that the study's core message is important. "If you're struggling with your weight and you feel like your culture doesn't like fat people, you're probably going to think less of yourself," he said. "Your culture doesn't like you."