Weight discrimination worsens health for people who are overweight or obese

Obesity isn’t terribly consistent with good health. The more severe the obesity, the worse the health effects.

But extra pounds alone don’t account for all of the health problems in people who are overweight. A study out this week suggests that society’s bias against fat people is partly to blame too.

Here’s the theory behind how it works: The higher your body-mass index, the more likely you are to think that you’ve been a victim of weight discrimination. And the more you believe you suffer from weight discrimination, the more your health suffers.

Researchers from Purdue University backed this up by analyzing data from 1,856 participants in the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States. Participants completed questionnaires in the mid-1990s and again in 2005; both times, they provided information on their height and weight (enough to compute their BMIs), whether they considered themselves to be overweight, their general health and degree of functional disability, and whether they had been subject to weight discrimination.


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The researchers found that the heavier people got, the more likely they were to feel they had been victims of weight discrimination. For instance, almost 11% of those with class 1 obesity (BMI between 30 and 34.9) reported being discriminated against because of their weight, along with 33% of those who were severely obese (BMI above 35). For the sake of comparison, less than 5% of those who were not obese reported such discrimination.

But being a victim of discrimination made people feel fatter – they were more likely to say that they considered themselves to be “very overweight.” They were also more likely to report steeper declines in their health.

“Class I obese and severely obese respondents have worse self-rated health a decade later than do normal weight persons,” the researchers wrote. “The health effects of obesity appear more severe for those who perceived weight discrimination,” though only moderately so. Still, they concluded, “Obesity stigma affects health.”

The study was published in Social Psychology Quarterly.

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