The link between racism and obesity was greatest among women who suffered from consistently high prejudice over a 12-year period.
The research, published online in the American Journal of Epidemiology, was based on data from the Black Women’s Health Study, a longitudinal study that enrolled and followed 59,000 African-American women beginning in 1995.
Through the use of questionnaires, the study gathered information on lifestyle factors, experiences of racism, height and weight, and other factors.
Obesity in the United States has increased rapidly over the past few decades with the greatest increases in African-American women — about half of African-American women are currently labeled as obese.
Experiencing racism — a form of severe psychosocial stress — can contribute to obesity. Research on both animals and humans suggest that constant exposure to stress can result in dysregulation of important neuroendocrine functions which can in turn trigger the storage of excess body fat.
For the study, participants were asked in 1997 and in 2009 to rate how often they experienced “everyday” racism, such as receiving lousy service while eating out or shopping, and whether they had been treated poorly because of their race on the job, in housing, or by the police (“lifetime” racism).
The findings revealed that participants who had reported the most everyday racism in both 1997 and 2009 were 69 percent more likely to become obese compared to those in the lowest category at both intervals. Women who reported more lifetime racism were also at greater risk for obesity.
“Experiences of racism may explain in part the high prevalence of obesity among African-American women,” said lead author Yvette C. Cozier, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University.
Cozier suggests that workplace- and community-based programs designed to eliminate racism as well as interventions to reduce racism-induced stress would be important strategies, especially in high-risk communities.
Source: Boston University