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Associations Among Stress, Internalized Weight Stigma, Emotional Eating, and Body Composition in Active-Duty Service Members Enrolling in a Randomized Controlled Trial of a Weight Management Program

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Obesity is a critical public health concern with particular relevance to US military personnel. Stress and internalized weight stigma (“stigma”) may contribute to and maintain obesogenic processes and behaviors, including emotional eating. In this secondary cross-sectional analysis, we examined (1) associations among stress and stigma with emotional eating and body fat percentage (BF%), (2) whether stress explains the association between stigma and emotional eating, and (3) whether emotional eating explains associations between stress and stigma with BF%.


Active-duty military service members (N = 178) completed BF% assessment and questionnaires assessing stress, stigma, and emotional eating.


Structural equation modeling path analyses showed that stress and stigma were both significantly associated with emotional eating (b = 0.35, p < 0.001 and b = 0.23, p < 0.001, respectively) and with BF% (b = 0.38, p < 0.001 and b = 0.29, p < 0.001, respectively) such that individuals who reported higher stress and stigma tended to report more emotional eating and had higher BF%. Stress partially explained the association between internalized weight stigma and emotional eating, and emotional eating partially explained the relationship between stress and BF% but did not significantly mediate the association between stigma and BF%.


Greater stress and internalized weight stigma were associated with more emotional eating and higher BF%; however, emotional eating only partially explained the association between stress and BF%. Results highlight the importance of interventions targeting stress management skills, but additional research is needed to identify mechanisms that explain the association between stigma and BF%.

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Fig. 1

Data Availability

A de-identified, anonymized limited dataset will be created and shared with other researchers who can specifically request use of these data through a Data Use Agreement.


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This project was supported by a National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases grant R01DK106415 and registered at (NCT01757847). Dr. Morse is supported by the VA Office of Academic Affairs Advanced Fellowship in Women’s Health. Dr. Wooldridge is supported by a Career Development Award [1IK2RX003634] from the United States (US) Department of Veterans Affairs Rehabilitation Research and Development Service. Dr. Herbert is supported by a Career Development Award [1IK2RX002807] from the US Department of Veterans Affairs Rehabilitation Research and Development Service.

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Correspondence to Niloofar Afari.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the IRB and with 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments. Informed consent was obtained from all participants included in the intervention study in which secondary data analysis was performed.

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Morse, J.L., Wooldridge, J.S., Herbert, M.S. et al. Associations Among Stress, Internalized Weight Stigma, Emotional Eating, and Body Composition in Active-Duty Service Members Enrolling in a Randomized Controlled Trial of a Weight Management Program. Int.J. Behav. Med. 31, 145–150 (2024).

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