Those who identified themselves as being ‘overweight’ were more likely to report overeating in response to stress - and this predicted subsequent weight gain, say University of Liverpool researchers.
You might think that being weight conscious is the best way to stay in shape.
But being aware of those few extra pounds could do more harm than good, new research suggests.
Scientists found people who believe they are overweight or obese are more likely to pile on the pounds than those unaware they are bigger than they should be.
This was because those who identified themselves as being ‘overweight’ were more likely to overeat as a stress response to it - therefore leading to weight gain.
Study co-author Dr Eric Robinson, of the University of Liverpool, said:' Realising you are an overweight individual is in itself likely to be quite stressful and make making healthy choices in your lifestyle more difficult.'
The findings also highlighted the difficulty public health organisations face when trying to help people lose weight.
He said: 'You would hope that making a person aware they are overweight would result in them being more likely to adopt a healthier lifestyle and lose some weight.
'What is important is to tackle stigma in society. People with a heavier body weight have body image challenges. That is not surprising given the way we talk about weight as a society.
'But the way we talk about body weight and the way we portray overweight and obesity in society is something we can think about and reconsider. '
He added they key was to encourage people to make lifestyle changes that don’t portray being overweight 'as a terrible thing'.
Believing or knowing you are overweight can become a vicious cycle - because the stress of it can cause overeating and weight gain
In the study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, researchers looked at the lives of 14,000 adults in the US and the UK through data captured in three studies.
They analysed data from time periods after children in the studies had reached adulthood to find out their perception of their own weight – whether or not it was correct – and their subsequent weight gain over time.
The UK study followed participants from 23 until 45, but the other two studies had shorter follow-up periods, of seven years and nine to 10 years.
Paradoxically, those who believed they were overweight became stressed about it - eating more and gaining weight.
In fact, scientists found that people who believe they are overweight or obese are more likely to pile on the pounds than those unaware they may be heavier their ideal weight
The research was also carried out at the University of Stirling and University of California.
The key to this problem is a person's stress mechanism, said Peter LePort, MD, medical director of MemorialCare Center for Obesity in Fountain Valley, California.
'People react to stress in different ways, but for some, eating is a stress relief,' he told 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.'
He added that the thought of being overweight basically becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, or vicious cycle.
'Instead of taking that stress, they ignore it and just use what has worked in the past to make them feel better - eating. But that stressful feeling is back as soon as they’ve finished eating, and they haven’t solved the problem.'
STRESS 'STOPS THE APPETITE OFF-SWITCH' FROM WORKING
Stress, sugar and other coping mechanisms like shopping, stimulants and alcohol give us a sudden rise in the feel-good brain chemicals GABA, dopamine and serotonin, writes nutritionist Charlotte Watts, author of The De-Stress Effect.
But they also cause crashes later, leading to cycles of dependence and an increasing reliance on them to ‘feel normal’.
When these craving cycles also cause weight gain, lowered self-esteem can also feed into habits of bingeing and/or overeating.
Stress also affects how satisfied we might feel.
It lowers sensitivity to the ‘satiety hormone’ leptin, produced by fat cells to tell the brain (in the hypothalamus) when we’re full after food has arrived in the bloodstream.
This, known as leptin resistance, is believed to be a factor in over-eating or bingeing where there seems to be no ‘off-switch’ to appetite, but high leptin levels are present.
Leptin responds to meal timings.
This means that if you snack often your appetite gets used to that and if you don’t, you’ll get used to regular meals, with appetite satisfaction and less excess calories between meals.
The hormone and its sensitivity is increased by lowering insulin (blood sugar balance), stress reduction and exercise.
Stress also affects how satisfied we might feel - leading to cravings for junk food