The stigma attached to food addiction is not as strong as the stigma attached to other addictions such as alcoholism or drug abuse, according to a new study -- unless you're obese.
New research out of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, published in the February 2013 issue of Basic and Applied Social Psychology, indicates that public feelings about food addiction are relatively benevolent when the sufferer is not obese.
In the first study, 659 participants took an online survey where they were asked to imagine encounters with people each labeled with one of the following conditions: cocaine addict, mentally ill, smoker, physically disabled, obese, obese food addict, obese physically disabled, and food addict. The researchers presented the labelled individuals in a random order, and participants answered questions about their feelings towards individuals branded with each label. The participants also indicated how likely they would be to socially interact with each labelled individual, the amount of sympathy or concern they felt towards each, the amount of anger or disgust they felt towards them, and how responsible they thought each person was for his or her target label.
The results indicated that the health condition label "cocaine addict" received the highest (worst) social stigma ratings, and the "physically disabled" label received the lowest stigma rating, meaning it was the least stigmatized. Food addicts fell in the middle, carrying less stigma than other addictions like smoking and alcoholism -- except when the food addicts were also obese. In that case, the stigma was higher than it was for smoking or alcoholism. Also, the researchers wrote, "The obese food addict received significantly higher ratings of anger/disgust and social distance than either obese or food addict labels, indicative of an additive stigmatizing effect."
In the second study, researchers looked at the stigma the food addiction label carries compared only to alcoholism and smoking labels, because "food, alcohol and tobacco are all legal and readily available substances." Five hundred and seventy participants were randomly assigned to one of six possible conditions, where they were asked to read a vignette about a thin alcoholic, obese alcoholic, thin smoker, obese smoker, thin food addict or obese food addict, view an image of that individual, and answer questions about them. Results showed that the participants found both the thin and obese food addicts more likable and less responsible for their condition than the smoker or the alcoholic.
Together the results of the two studies showed that although food addiction in itself is less stigmatized than smoking, alcoholism, or drugs, an obese food addict is viewed much more negatively than a thin one.
"Our findings offer preliminary insights into how food addiction is perceived among other health conditions and how it affects public attitudes toward obesity," researcher Rebecca Puhl said in a Yale press release.
Food addiction is not formally classified in the 5th Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), but mounting research on the subject suggests that it is a real condition. In 2010, physician Mark Hyman suggested that food addiction could help explain the prevalence of obesity in the U.S., and why some obese individuals continue to overeat despite the health risks and social stigma of doing so. In 2011, researchers at Yale's Rudd Center found that food addiction affects the brain in a similar manner to drug addiction.
The stigma surrounding obesity is well established. Obese individuals, often thought to practice poor hygiene and laziness, are discriminated against in the areas of education and employment. Perhaps as a result of these stigmas, obese individuals are less confident in their romantic relationships and less likely to seek medical treatment than average-weight or underweight individuals. Weight stigma has also been shown to impact women's stress levels.
Puhl and Luedicke's study found that the food addict label adds to the stigma of obesity, but thin or "normal weight" sufferers are not harshly judged for their affliction.
"Compared to other stigmatizing addictions, food addiction is less vulnerable to the public stigma," Puhl told the Hartford Courant. "The problem is that obesity is so strongly associated with willpower or personal responsibility. Whether the food addiction label is enough to to challenge those stereotypes, we don't know."
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