While it is well-known that being overweight or obese is bad for your health, new research shows that the painful social stigma that often accompanies these conditions can make the health risks far worse. In fact, targets of weight discrimination have doubled the risk of high allostatic load — the overall “wear and tear” of the body due to chronic stress.
The findings, published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine, expose flaws in society’s approach to weight control. The researchers believe that weight loss programs and public health campaigns should focus more on reducing weight stigma and treating all people with dignity and kindness rather than focusing only on the physical aspects of obesity and weight loss.
“The main message is to be aware that the way we treat people may have more negative effects than we realize,” said Maya Vadiveloo, Ph.D., assistant professor of nutrition and food sciences in the College of Health Sciences at the University of Rhode Island.
“Our paper highlights the importance of including sensitivity and understanding when working with individuals with obesity and when developing public health campaigns.”
Vadiveloo conducted the study with Josiemer Mattei, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of nutrition at Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Using weight discrimination data from the long-term national study known as Midlife Development in the United States, the researchers focused on respondents who reported regularly experiencing discrimination because of their weight. The study asked participants if they had ever been treated discourteously, called names, or made to feel inferior.
The findings show that those who experienced weight discrimination over a 10-year period had twice the risk of high allostatic load, the cumulative dysfunction of bodily systems from chronic stress. That stress can lead to heart disease, diabetes, inflammation, and other disorders, increasing risk of death.
“It is a pretty big effect,” says Vadiveloo. “Even if we accounted for health effects attributed to being overweight, these people still experience double the risk of allostatic load because of weight discrimination.”
Further, people who experience weight discrimination often shun social interaction and skip doctor visits, she adds.
“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,” she said.
For example, Vadiveloo suggests developing strategies to make healthy foods affordable and creating safe places for people to be active.
The researchers hope to address the topic in the classroom and revisit data from the nearly 1,000 participants to see whether having more social support or positive coping strategies can help reduce the negative health effects of weight discrimination.
Source: University of Rhode Island