Dr. Rebecca Puhl is Deputy Director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity and Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at UConn. Dr. Puhl is responsible for identifying and coordinating research and policy efforts aimed at reducing weight bias.
Dr. Puhl earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Yale University. She has conducted research on weight bias for 18 years and has published numerous studies on weight-based bullying in youth, weight bias in health care and the media, interventions to reduce weight bias, and the impact of weight stigma on emotional and physical health.
Dr. Puhl has testified in state legislative hearings on weight bias, routinely provides expertise to state and national health organizations, and has developed evidence-based training programs to reduce weight bias that have been implemented in medical facilities across the country.
Dr. Puhl is a leading national expert in the field of weight bias, and her research is routinely publicized in national and international media. She has served on the Council of The Obesity Society and the Board of Directors for the Obesity Action Coalition, and has been recognized for her research with awards including the Excellence in Policy Research Award from the National Eating Disorders Coalition, and The Obesity Society's Scientific Achievement Award for excellence in an established research career. In 2019, UConn awarded Dr. Puhl the CLAS Excellence in Research Award in Public Scholarship.
Areas of Expertise (3)
Yale University: Ph.D., Clinical Psychology 2004
Yale University: M.S., Psychology 2001
Queen’s University: B.A.H., Psychology 1999
Media Appearances (24)
Language for treating childhood obesity carries its own health risks to kids, experts say
The 19th online
“When kids are teased about their weight, made to be shamed, or bullied because of their weight, this increases their risk for a number of negative emotional and physical health consequences,” said Rebecca Puhl, the deputy director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Health at the University of Connecticut and an expert on policy strategies designed to reduce weight bias. Puhl’s research has found that when children have these kinds of experiences, they are then put at higher risk for developing depressive symptoms, anxiety, lower self-esteem and worsened body image. In adolescents, this can translate into higher rates of suicidal thoughts and substance abuse.
New Guidelines Underscore How Complicated Childhood Obesity Is for Patients and Providers
New York Times print
The group urges pediatricians to examine and address their own attitudes toward children with obesity. It recommends, among other measures, that clinicians use person-first language (that is, saying “a child with obesity” rather than an “obese child”) and that they recognize the complexity of obesity. “Physicians are not immune to societal weight bias that is prevalent in our culture,” said Rebecca Puhl, a professor and the deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health at the University of Connecticut. “Weight bias is rarely, if ever, addressed in medical school training.”
Extra weight increases health risk in the long run. Fat shaming hurts now.
USA Today online
With so many Americans carrying extra pounds, it seems logical that society would be getting more accepting of heavier people. But it isn't, according to Rebecca Puhl, who has studied the subject for decades. The public perception is that shaming people for their size will provoke them to lose weight. "We see the opposite," said Puhl, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Health at the University of Connecticut. Some advertisers have evolved, offering plus-sized models, which Puhl supports. But "we still have very stringent societal ideals of thinness," she said, and people who violate those ideals are considered lazy and lacking in willpower.
Brazil, Land of the Thong, Embraces Its Heavier Self
New York Times print
“What’s happening in Brazil are these collective efforts by policymakers to address this problem in ways we’re really not seeing in other places,” said Rebecca Puhl, a University of Connecticut professor who tracks such laws. “In the U.S. and frankly everywhere else in the world, the policy landscape is quite barren.” Ms. Puhl said that since Michigan passed a law in 1976 that formally protected people from weight discrimination, there have been few meaningful or related policies in the United States. Massachusetts is considering similar legislation, though it has failed there before. Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík, passed a similar law in 2016. And in 2014, the European Court of Justice ruled that severe obesity can legally render people disabled, potentially protecting them from discrimination, but obesity alone does not warrant protection.
Women Feel More Stigma From 'Spare Tire' Around Middle Than Men
"This study contributes to a growing evidence base which shows that blaming oneself for one's weight and engaging in self-stigma may be harmful to health, particularly for women," said Rebecca Puhl, deputy director at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health at the University of Connecticut. This isn't surprising given how societal ideals of female beauty emphasize thinness, said Puhl, who has no ties to the new research. "Women who have bodies that deviate from this unrealistic ideal are vulnerable to blame, shame and stigma, often publicly, as we see so frequently on social media platforms," she noted.
The pandemic changed the way we ate and shopped -- not always for the better
Prior research has shown that when children and adults experience weight stigma and internalize it, that itself can predict weight gain. "A common perception is that a little shame or stigma might motivate people to lose weight, but that is not what we see in research," Rebecca Puhl, deputy director at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, told CNN in a prior interview. "In fact, when people experience weight stigma, this actually contributes to unhealthy eating behaviors, lower physical activity and weight gain," Puhl said. "Our studies show that when parents shift the conversation to healthy behaviors, that tends to be much more effective.
How Fatphobia Is Leading to Poor Care in the Pandemic
This dramatic push-pull of her subconscious makes sense because while she was fighting for her life, Beck was also up against what she and other activists say is the biggest fear in the fat community right now: That if they become severely ill with Covid-19 in an area with medical supply shortages, they will not receive lifesaving equipment, such as ventilators, because of their weight. At press time, there was no published data to indicate how commonplace this sort of medical rationing is or may become as the pandemic reaches its winter peak and hospitals are once again overcrowded in many parts of the country. “This is a really important question but so hard to document,” says Rebecca Puhl, PhD, a weight stigma researcher and deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut. “If a doctor chooses one patient over another for a ventilator, that probably won’t be written into the report. So there’s a layer of stigma here that may be present but is very hard to monitor or document in any way.” The true scope of ventilator triaging may only become clear retrospectively, Puhl notes, when researchers are able to analyze data on Covid-19 death rates.
How Fatphobia Has Cemented Itself in the American Workplace
It’s no shock that fatphobia has cemented itself into the foundation of the workplace. The confusion, however, comes with the fact that only two states have outlawed such discrimination, and that federal protections for marginalized identities constantly refuse to acknowledge those of higher weights. “This can also have a more systematic effect in terms of not receiving promotions for a job, having harsher discipline or consequences, and it also leads to wrongful job termination,” says Rebecca Puhl, a professor in the Department of Human Development & Family Sciences at The University of Connecticut. “We live in a society where weight stigma is very common, yet it often goes unchallenged.”
The Racial Origins of Fat Stigma
CBS News tv
Rebecca Puhl, Deputy Director of the UConn Rudd Center, is featured in a new CBS documentary "Speaking Frankly / Fat Shaming.”
How To Instill A Healthy Attitude About Exercise In Your Kids
Huffington Post online
One major way to foster a healthy attitude toward exercise is to separate it from how a person looks. “In our thin-obsessed culture, it’s too easy for children to come to believe that the purpose of exercise is to obtain a thin body or to lose weight or to achieve a certain physical appearance,” said Rebecca Puhl, a professor in the department of human development and family sciences and deputy director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut. “These messages are damaging to youth, so parents need to be mindful of those broader societal messages that children see and hear, and to instead focus on engaging in physical activity for the purpose of health and well-being.”
What if Doctors Stopped Prescribing Weight Loss?
“There was very little work happening in this area,” says Kelly Brownell, a professor of public policy at Duke University and a former director of what became the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Rebecca Puhl, then a graduate student of Brownell's, volunteered to lead the effort. “Basically, Rebecca created this field,” Brownell says. “And we were pretty quickly dumbfounded by what we found.” Today ample evidence documents how people with larger bodies experience bias not only in health care settings but also in their workplaces, their schools and the media. Puhl, who is now deputy director for the Rudd Center at the University of Connecticut, and other scientists are beginning to show how living with this kind of chronic internal and external weight stigma negatively affects physical and mental health.
The Great Body-Acceptance Debate
US News & World Report online
Research indicates many factors – from genetics to environment – are tied to obesity, and people who lose weight often gain it back. Study after study also confirms negative stereotypes about fat people are pervasive within the medical community. "We know from research that weight bias is common in physicians and other health care providers," says Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. "In fact, research shows that these biases are as common among medical professionals and doctors as they are in the general population."
Is obesity a disability? What a court decision in Washington state says about 'fat acceptance'
Deseret News online
Supporters of such measures say they are necessary because of widespread prejudice toward people who are overweight. "A study published this year by two Harvard psychologists found that overtly negative attitudes toward people based on body weight had declined by only 15 percent from 2004 to 2016; in contrast, explicit racism dropped by 37 percent and explicit anti-gay feelings by nearly half," wrote Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, in the Post.
Weight discrimination is rampant. Yet in most places it’s still legal.
Washington Post print
The Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City obsessively monitored the weight of its waitresses, according to 22 of them who sued it in 2008. They would be suspended, for example, if they gained 7 percent more weight than they had when they were hired. But a New Jersey judge threw out the suit, explaining that state law was silent about weight discrimination. The state Supreme Court affirmed the decision three years ago.
When You’re Told You’re Too Fat to Get Pregnant
New York Times Magazine print
Weight-science researchers are aware of how that lack of compassion can have health consequences. The kind of stigma that women like McLellan and Balzano encounter throughout their lives puts fat people at higher risk for depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. They also have higher blood pressure and higher levels of stress hormones. And many researchers documenting these risks control for B.M.I. when they collect their data. “This tells us that it’s stigma, rather than one’s weight per se, that contributes to these adverse health outcomes,” says Rebecca Puhl, an author of the 2013 Yale study and the deputy director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut. “This evidence also challenges the notion that stigma will motivate people to lose weight.”
Teasing Kids About Their Weight May Make Them Gain More
"I really do think this is an area that needs more attention," says Rebecca Puhl, deputy director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut. "This is contributing to poor health, bottom line." Puhl also notes that the finding that over 60% of kids with overweight in the study were bullied shows how common this is for youth. "What [this] is telling us is that we need to do a better job protecting adolescents from weight-based teasing," she says.
Food deserts don’t cause obesity. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter.
Washington Post print
Rebecca Puhl is deputy director of the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Personal behavior is “one piece of the puzzle,” she wrote me in an email. But if we focus on that piece, “the puzzle will never be solved.” But, by addressing the food environment, we also address personal behavior, by finding ways to make it easier for people to make better choices. We need to focus on “strategies and policies that create healthier defaults and support responsible behaviors for everyone,” she wrote.
How Not to Talk to a Child Who is Overweight
New York Times print
For all the attention paid to weight and its health effects in medical settings, the social and emotional side is often neglected, said Rebecca Puhl, a clinical psychologist who is a professor in the department of human development and family studies at the University of Connecticut. “Weight is now one of the most frequent reasons kids are teased or bullied,” she said.
Help obese kids avoid weight stigma, doctors advise
“While there has been substantial attention to medical treatment and intervention for obesity in youth, the social and emotional impact of body weight – like stigma and bullying – often get neglected,” said Rebecca Puhl, a fellow at the Obesity Society and deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut in Hartford.
Teasing Teens about Weight May Do Lasting Harm
U.S. News & World Report online
Researchers also found that teens who are bullied about their weight are more likely to become emotional eaters. Teen bullies often target peers' weight, but weight-based teasing can also occur at home. "Our findings suggest the need for broader anti-bullying initiatives that include both the school and family/home environments as targets for intervention," lead author Rebecca Puhl said.
The Shame of Fat Shaming
New York Times
The problems with fat shaming start early. Rebecca Puhl, the deputy director of the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, and her colleagues find that weight is the most common reason children are bullied in school. In one study, nearly 85 percent of adolescents reported seeing overweight classmates teased in gym class. Dr. Puhl and her colleagues asked fat kids who was doing the bullying. It turned out that it was not just friends and classmates but also teachers and — for more than a third of the bullied — parents. “If these kids are not safe at school or at home, where are they going to be supported?” Dr. Puhl asked.
Weight Bias is a Bigger Problem than You May Think, Experts Say
"We know from our research on weight stigma and discrimination that even though both women and men experience unfair treatment because of excess weight, women report these experiences at lower levels of obesity than men," said Rebecca Puhl, a professor at the University of Connecticut and deputy director of the university's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.
What Obese Patients Should Say to Doctors
The New York Times
The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut recommends that patients go into a doctor’s office as prepared as possible with questions they would like the doctor to address, said Rebecca Puhl, its deputy director. “Write down details: when the problem started, how often it appeared and your own opinion about whether it is related to your weight,” Dr. Puhl said.
Stigma: The Human Cost of Obesity
Overweight and obese people discuss the stigma and discrimination they have faced because of their weight.
Weight stigma is a burden around the world – and has negative consequences everywhereThe Conversation
Lazy. Unmotivated. No self-discipline. No willpower. These are just a few of the widespread stereotypes ingrained in American society about people who have a higher body weight or larger body size. Known as weight stigma, these attitudes result in many Americans being blamed, teased, bullied, mistreated and discriminated against. There is nowhere to hide from societal weight stigma. Decades of research confirm the presence of weight stigma in workplaces, schools, health care settings, public accommodations and the mass media, as well as in close interpersonal relationships with friends and families. It’s everywhere.
Internalizing Weight Stigma: Prevalence and Sociodemographic Considerations in US AdultsObesity
Rebecca M. Puhl, Mary S. Himmelstein, Diane M. Quinn
This study aimed to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the presence, severity, and sociodemographic correlates of weight bias internalization (WBI) across three distinct samples of US adults.
The Role of Stigma in Weight Loss Maintenance Among U.S. AdultsAnnals of Behavioral Medicine
Rebecca M. Puhl, Diane M. QuinnBradley M. WeiszYoung J. Suh
Challenges of maintaining long-term weight loss are well-established and present significant obstacles in obesity prevention and treatment. A neglected but potentially important barrier to weight-loss maintenance is weight stigmatization. We examined the role of weight stigma—experienced and internalized—as a contributor to weight-loss maintenance and weight regain in adults.
Experiences of weight teasing in adolescence and weight-related outcomes in adulthood: A 15-year longitudinal studyPreventive Medicine
Rebecca M. Puhl, Melanie M. Wal, Chen Chen, S. Bryn Austin, Marla E. Eisenberg, Dianne Neumark-Sztainere
Weight-based teasing is common among youth, but little is known about its long-term impact on health outcomes. We aimed to 1) identify whether weight-based teasing in adolescence predicts adverse eating and weight-related outcomes 15 years later; and 2) determine whether teasing source (peers or family) affects these outcomes. Data were collected from Project EAT-IV (Eating and Activity in Teens and Young Adults) (N = 1830), a longitudinal cohort study that followed a diverse sample of adolescents from 1999 (baseline) to 2015 (follow-up). Weight-based teasing at baseline was examined as a predictor of weight status, binge eating, dieting, eating as a coping strategy, unhealthy weight control, and body image at 15-year follow-up. After adjusting for demographic covariates and baseline body mass index (BMI), weight-based teasing in adolescence predicted higher BMI and obesity 15 years later. For women, these longitudinal associations occurred across peer and family-based teasing sources, but for men, only peer-based teasing predicted higher BMI. The same pattern emerged for adverse eating outcomes; weight-based teasing from peers and family during adolescence predicted binge eating, unhealthy weight control, eating to cope, poor body image, and recent dieting in women 15 years later. For men, teasing had fewer longitudinal associations. Taken together, this study shows that weight-based teasing in adolescence predicts obesity and adverse eating behaviors well into adulthood, with differences across gender and teasing source. Findings underscore the importance of addressing weight-based teasing in educational and health initiatives, and including the family environment as a target of anti-bullying intervention, especially for girls.
Cross-national perspectives about weight-based bullying in youth: nature, extent and remediesPediatric Obesity
Puhl, Latner, O'Brien, Luedicke, Forhan, Danielsdottir
No cross-national studies have examined public perceptions about weight-based bullying in youth. CONCLUSIONS: Across countries, strong recognition exists of weight-based bullying and the need to address it. These findings may inform policy-level actions and clinical practices concerning youth vulnerable to weight-based bullying.
Legislating for weight-based equality: national trends in public support for laws to prohibit weight discriminationObesity
R M Puhl, Y Suh & X Li
The prevalence of weight discrimination in the United States has led to increasing calls for legal measures to address weight-based inequities on a broader scale. This study examined public support in 2014 and 2015 for three proposed laws prohibiting weight discrimination, and compared findings with public attitudes towards the same laws from 2011 to 2013. An online survey was completed by a diverse national sample of US adults (N=2411) in June–July of 2014 and 2015 to assess their support for anti-discrimination legislation. Public support increased for the anti-discrimination laws from 2014 to 2015, and at least 71% of participants expressed support for each of the laws in both years. Compared with public support documented in 2011–2013, there was a significant increase in support in 2014–2015 for legislation to extend disability protections to individuals with obesity and for laws that would include body weight in existing state civil rights statutes. Consistently, high levels of support (78%) were documented across this 5-year period for laws to address weight-based discrimination in employment. As public approval is a powerful catalyst motivating political will needed to make policy changes, these findings provide important insights and implications for advancing policy-level discourse about remedies for weight discrimination.