How society treats overweight people can directly impact their health, according to researchers from the University of Rhode Island (URI), Kingston and the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health, Boston. Their study reported that people who experienced weight discrimination over a ten-year period had twice the risk of high allostatic load, the cumulative dysfunction of bodily systems from chronic stress, which can lead to heart disease, diabetes, inflammation and other disorders, increasing risk of death.
Dr Maya Vadiveloo, assistant professor of nutrition and food sciences in the College of Health Sciences (URI), and Dr Josiemer Mattei, assistant professor of nutrition at Harvard, analysed weight discrimination data from the long-term national study, Midlife Development in the United States. The paper, ‘Perceived Weight Discrimination and 10-Year Risk of Allostatic Load Among US Adults’, was published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
The researchers focused on respondents who reported regularly experiencing discrimination because of their weight and asked whether they were treated discourteously, called names, or made to feel inferior.
Over 41% of the sample had obesity and 6% reported weight discrimination at follow-up. People who experienced (versus did not experience) weight discrimination had twice the risk of high allostatic load, lipid/metabolic dysregulation and inflammation.
The findings expose flaws in society’s approach to weight control, said Vadiveloo.
“The main message is to be aware that the way we treat people may have more negative effects than we realise,” she explained. “Our paper highlights the importance of including sensitivity and understanding when working with individuals with obesity and when developing public health campaigns.”
People who experience weight discrimination often shun social interaction and skip doctor visits, she notes.
“There is so much shaming around food and weight. We need to work together as a nation on improving public health and clinical support for individuals with obesity and targeting environmental risk factors.”
For example, Vadiveloo suggests developing strategies to make healthy foods affordable and creating safe places for people to be active.
Vadiveloo hopes to address the topic in the classroom and revisit data from the nearly 1,000 respondents to explore whether having more social support or positive coping strategies reduces negative health effects of weight discrimination.