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Characterizing fear of weight gain and sensitivity to weight gain in individuals seeking weight loss treatment

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Weight concern, including fear of weight gain and sensitivity to weight gain, is indicative of disordered eating in individuals with underweight or healthy weight. It is unknown, however, whether or how these constructs present in individuals with excess weight, particularly among those with binge-eating disorder (BED). This study sought to characterize fear of weight gain and sensitivity to weight gain and examine their relationship with disordered eating and depression symptoms, in individuals seeking weight loss treatment, both with and without BED.


Adults seeking weight loss treatment in an urban primary care clinic (N = 131) completed the Eating Disorder Examination interview and Beck Depression Inventory. Height and weight were collected.


Clinical levels of fear of weight gain and sensitivity to weight gain were present in this sample. Individuals with BED reported experiencing fear of weight gain (48.6%), significantly more than those without BED (20.9%); both groups reported similar and clinically elevated sensitivity to weight gain. Both constructs were related to greater levels of disordered eating and depression symptoms, at times based on BED status. Fear of weight gain was associated with overvaluation of weight and shape for those without BED only. Objective and subjective bulimic episodes were unrelated to fear of weight gain or sensitivity to weight gain, regardless of BED status.


Fear of weight gain and sensitivity to weight gain were common in this sample and may be maladaptive, as evidenced by associations with elevated eating psychopathology. Future studies should examine these variables within larger samples and should employ longitudinal designs.

Level of evidence

Level III: case–control analytic study.

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Fig. 1

Data availability

The datasets generated during and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the senior author on reasonable request.


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This study was supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Dr. Barnes has received research Grants: R03-DK10400801A1 and K23-DK092279. NIH had no role in the study design, collection, analysis and interpretation of data, in the writing of the report, or in the decision to submit the article for publication.

Author information

All authors contributed to the methodology, statistical plan and analyses. Dr. Bullock conducted literature searches and wrote the original draft of the manuscript, as well as reviewed and edited all drafts. Dr. Barber wrote the discussion and identified conclusions. Dr. Barnes conceptualized and designed the study, as well as collected the data. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Correspondence to Anastasia J. Bullock.

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On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the Yale Human Investigation Committee (i.e., Institutional Research Board) (#1106008713) and with the 1964 Helsinki Declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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Bullock, A.J., Barber, J. & Barnes, R.D. Characterizing fear of weight gain and sensitivity to weight gain in individuals seeking weight loss treatment. Eat Weight Disord (2020).

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  • Fear of weight gain
  • Sensitivity to weight gain
  • Overweight
  • Obesity
  • Binge-eating disorder