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Fatal Fat Shaming? How Weight Discrimination May Lead To Premature Death

Jeff Newell, left, in November 2014, and then on Oct. 18 of this year, after finishing his first road race (Courtesy)

Jeff Newell, left, in November 2014, and then on Oct. 18 of this year, after finishing his first road race (Courtesy)

As soon as the chair broke under the weight of his 533 pounds, Jeff Newell knew he wouldn’t get the job.

With a background in customer service and a culinary arts degree, Newell, of Taunton, Massachusetts, had been searching fruitlessly for work for several years. Finally, a great job near his home opened up that seemed a perfect fit with his credentials. But then came the chair-breaking incident. Humiliating, yes, but even more infuriating because the interviewer, offering neither help nor an apology, simply shook her head and made a face.

“I knew what she was thinking: ‘This person is overweight and he’s going to be lazy and why should I hire him?’ ” Newell said. The situation was mortifying emotionally, but also took a physical toll. Newell broke out in a sweat, his heart racing.

The sort of weight-based discrimination that he says he experienced is not just unpleasant and stressful; it may actually lead to premature death, a recent study finds.

While earlier research has shown that weight discrimination is associated with poor health outcomes for a variety of reasons, the new study, led by researchers at Florida State University, concludes that in addition, “weight discrimination may shorten life expectancy.”

The new analysis found an association only, and no causal link between discrimination and life expectancy. Still, researchers in the field say the paper, published in the journal Psychological Science, adds to a growing body of literature pointing to the deep, long-term impact of weight bias and discrimination.

“I think this is one of the most important papers to come out in the research of weight stigma,” said A. Janet Tomiyama, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Psychology Department at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studies weight stigma and directs UCLA’s Dieting, Stress, and Health Laboratory. “The finding itself is astonishing, but even more significant is that they were able to replicate the finding across two very high quality cohort studies. The crucial implication here is that the stigma alone of being heavy can be harmful to health — and we know that weight stigma is rampant in this country.”

The findings emerged after researchers analyzed data from two separate national studies: the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), with more than 13,000 participants, and the Midlife in the United States Study (MIDUS), with more than 5,000 participants. The two studies (conducted about 10 years apart) both included reports on perceived discrimination, including weight discrimination.

The new analysis found that weight discrimination was associated with an increase in mortality risk of nearly 60 percent among both HRS and MIDUS participants and also that the increased risk “was not accounted for by common physical and psychological risk factors.” In other words, the health effects of the discrimination were teased out from the health effects of the weight itself.

In an interview, Angelina Sutin, the study’s lead researcher and an assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Social Medicine at Florida State University College of Medicine in Tallahassee, said the big surprise was that even after statistically controlling for other factors such as body-mass index, level of disease, depression and smoking, among others, the experience of weight discrimination was linked with people dying earlier than expected.

“What was really surprising was that the association was there not just in one sample but in two, and the associations were almost identical,” Sutin said.

Weight discrimination and bias are widespread, according to an overview on the stigma of obesity, and that translates into inequities in employment, health care and education

And that stigma appears to contribute to a “vicious cycle,” according to Tomiyama, of UCLA, who writes about “a positive feedback loop wherein weight stigma begets weight gain.”

Indeed, in an earlier study, Tomiyama found that children labeled as “too fat” had an increased risk of having an obese body mass index nearly a decade later.

So why might stigma be causing such problems, and possibly contributing to premature death?

That question wasn’t addressed in the recent study, but Sutin offered some informed speculation.

“Part of it might be stress that people are carrying around with them,” she said. But sometimes it’s where the discrimination comes from that’s meaningful. For instance, she said: “Families are often the source of weight discrimination,” and that can be particularly painful, since “families are supposed to be a support.”

Also, several studies find that weight bias is rampant among medical students and other health care providers. Even eating disorder specialists are not immune to negative stereotypes about obese patients, according to a 2014 study. This attitude among health care professionals can lead to delays in care and treatment, and also misdiagnoses, experts say.

Much of the research on weight stigma and discrimination is led by Rebecca Puhl, Ph.D., deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity and a professor in the Department of Human Development & Family Studies at the University of Connecticut. She said there are several possible mechanisms at work that could contribute to premature mortality for people subject to weight discrimination.

“Other studies have found that when people are exposed to weight stigma or discrimination, that they actually experience elevated physiological stress responses (e.g., cortisol reactivity, blood pressure) which could contribute to poor health outcomes,” Puhl wrote in an email. “In addition, studies show that exposure to weight stigma can also lead to increased calorie intake, food consumption, and binge eating, which could play roles as well. The idea here is that weight stigma can induce emotional distress, which in turn becomes a trigger for turning to some of these maladaptive eating patterns as temporary coping strategies to alleviate those negative feelings.”

Sarah Bramblette, who has a master’s degree in health law, says even though she suffers from a medical condition called Lipedema that contributed to her current weight of over 400 pounds, she has been subjected to weight discrimination throughout her life. While she says some of the nasty comments hurt her feelings, it’s the bias from health professionals that has the greatest impact.

Here’s how Bramblette opened her recent TedxNSU talk at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale:

When I first appeared on stage, what was your perception of me? Lazy, disgusting, perhaps depressed, unmotivated, unhealthy? Based on my appearance it’s usually assumed… that my weight and my condition in life are self-induced. That’s not true, but often I don’t get a second chance to make a first impression….Weight bias that I’ve experienced in health care has hurt me physically. When doctors and nurses have the perception that I’m lazy and unmotivated and noncompliant, that influences the care they provide and it has a negative impact on my health.

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