Discrimination Based on Weight Doubles Health Risk, Study by University of Rhode Island Professor Finds

Data show links between how society treats overweight people and health effects of chronic stress

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Maya Vadiveloo
Photo courtesy of of Maya Vadiveloo.

KINGSTON, R.I. – October 19, 2016 – We all know that carrying extra pounds can be bad for your health. Now a URI professor has found that how society treats overweight people makes matters worse.

Maya Vadiveloo, assistant professor of nutrition and food sciences in the College of Health Sciences, and Josiemer Mattei, assistant professor of nutrition at Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health, analyzed weight discrimination data from the long-term national study, Midlife Development in the United States.

The researchers focused on respondents who reported regularly experiencing discrimination because of their weight. The study asked whether they were treated discourteously, called names, or made to feel inferior. 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, they found. That stress can lead to heart disease, diabetes, inflammation and other disorders, increasing risk of death.

“It is a pretty big effect,” Vadiveloo, of North Kingstown, says of the findings. “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.”

The findings, published in the August issue of Annals of Behavioral Medicine, expose flaws in society’s approach to weight control, Vadiveloo says. “The main message is to be aware that the way we treat people may have more negative effects than we realize,” she says. “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,” she says. 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.