Why Thinking You’re Overweight Can Make You Gain Weight

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Thinking you’re fat can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Photo: Getty Images)

It makes sense that if you think you’re overweight, you’ll work hard to lose weight. But scientists have discovered that just the opposite is true.

New research published in the International Journal of Obesity found that people who think they’re overweight are more likely to gain more weight than those who don’t think they’re overweight.

For the study, researchers analyzed data from three longitudinal studies of 14,000 adults in the U.S. and the U.K.: the U.S. National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, the U.K. National Child Development Study, and Midlife in the United States.

Scientists studied the participants’ perception of their own weight once they reached adulthood, whether it was correct, and their weight gain over time. The British study had data that followed participants from ages 23 to 45, but the other two studies followed participants for up to 10 years.

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Researchers discovered that people who said they were “overweight” were more likely to say they overate due to stress and, as a result, gained weight.

But this happened regardless of whether a person was actually overweight or not, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Adults are classified as “overweight” when they have a body mass index (BMI) within the range of 25 to 29.9, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (A person who is 5′9″ and weighs between 169 and 202 pounds would be considered “overweight.”) According to data from the National Institutes of Health, more than 33 percent of adults in the U.S. meet this classification.

Study co-author Jeffrey Hunger tells Yahoo Health that he was surprised by the findings at first since “there is this assumption that people need to see themselves as overweight in order to engage in weight maintenance behaviors.”

However, he now says it makes sense that thinking you’re overweight can have a poor impact on your health because there are negative health effects that come with the stigma of being overweight — among them exercising less and eating more.

According to Peter LePort, MD, medical director of MemorialCare Center for Obesity at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., it’s all tied in to a person’s stress mechanism.

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“People react to stress in different ways, but for some, eating is a stress relief,” he tells Yahoo Health. “Even if they’re a normal weight to begin with, if their method of dealing with stress is to eat, they’re going to gain weight.”

While general life stressors can come into play, LePort says the concept of being overweight is very stressful for some people, which further complicates what can become a vicious cycle: They are stressed out because they think they’re overweight, they eat more to cope with that stress, and consequently become or stay overweight.

“Instead of taking that stress, they ignore it and just use what has worked in the past to make them feel better — eating,” says LePort. “But that stressful feeling is back as soon as they’ve finished eating, and they haven’t solved the problem.”

Unfortunately, Hunger says, this phenomenon can apply to anyone who thinks they’re overweight, because they think they need to lose a few pounds.

Luckily, it’s possible to break the cycle, Shenelle Edwards-Hampton, a clinical psychologist who specializes in weight management at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, tells Yahoo Health.

The first step is to essentially give yourself a break. Edwards-Hampton recommends trying to think more positively about your body and to focus more on the things you’ve done well, like having eaten a nutritious meal or exercised recently. That can help make stress eaters less inclined to use food as a coping mechanism, she says.

She also suggests distraction, e.g., going for a walk, reading a book, or doing anything other than eating if you feel stressed out about your weight.

Edwards-Hampton says counseling can also be very effective. However, she points out that changing the way a person deals with food doesn’t happen overnight: “I tell patients all the time, ‘You’ve been eating this way for a long time. It’s going to take time and practice to change these eating habits.’”

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