Interesting study from the annals of the open access journal PLos-One time.
Courtesy of a paper released this past July:
The present research demonstrates that, in addition to poorer mental health outcomes, weight discrimination has implications for obesity. Rather than motivating individuals to lose weight, weight discrimination increases risk for obesity.
Study authors Angelina Satin and Antonio Terracciano decided to test out their theory by taking a peek at the Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal sample of older Americans over the age of 50 conducted out of the University of Michigan.
Pulling apart the more than six thousand participants who answered questions about the level of discrimination they felt in their day-to-day life – a feature of the questionnaire added in 2004 – the two examined the relationship between current perceived weight discrimination to risk of future obesity. They found that, shocks of all shocks, the more weight discrimination a person felt at the time, the more likely that person would become/remain obese four years later. As much as 2.5 times more likely.
More specifically and depressingly, this risk was that much worse for people reported to be in the normal range of weight than those simply overweight and it was a risk mostly independent of age, gender or any other type of discrimination. Put simply, the worse you’re made to feel about your weight, the more likely you’ll reach an unhealthy one years later.
The caveats here are aplenty, the easiest seen being the age factor. Others include the unsturdy nature of the weight measurement, with a full third of the sample only relaying their weight and height as opposed to having it measured by trained staff, and BMI itself being, at best, an imperfect scale. There’s also the importance of absolute numbers, as only 8% of the entire sample reported feeling any sort of weight discrimination and only 357 participants (that’s 6%) actually became obese at the four-year-later followup.
It also shouldn’t go without saying that studies such as this can only describe the what of a reality, not the why or how. Does the well-documented anxiety that comes with feeling discriminated against make it harder to avoid unhealthy behaviors such as overeating and staying inactive? Does it manifest physically as an overabundance of stress hormones such as cortisol, which is believed to contribute to weight gain? Or is it just the art of the self-fulfilling prophecy? (The authors offer up each of these possibilities in their paper)
It seems to me that the infinitely more interesting group to look at next would be school-age children. Given how predictive childhood obesity is of adult obesity, the level of overt bullying in school and the tendency to engrain most of our constant habits in our younger years, I’d personally think the effect of discrimination would be all the more noticeable.
Minor flaws aside, the take-away here is that we’re likely shooting ourselves in the foot when it comes to framing obesity prevention as a battle of the bulge rather than one of healthy nutrition and exercise.
Oddly enough, mocking, insulting and shaming people ISN’T the best way to get them to change their behavior and oops, there goes the obvious police. It’s hardly an overreach to point out that our culture treats weight as a bludgeon to swing over any unsuspecting woman – and increasingly man – who dares to look like anything less than a shining white Abercrombie & Fitch model. To make matters worse, our constant body policing often and unknowingly hides underneath a thin veneer of health concerns, even from those with perfectly sincere intentions.
For those of us who legitimately believe that the growing obesity rate is a serious problem we have to handle honestly, hopefully studies like this will teach us how to communicate without coming off as complete and utter douchenozzles.