Self-Stigmatization In Obesity Can Give You Heart Disease

If you are obese and internalize fat-shaming and discrimination levelled against you, you are at a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease, first-of-its-kind study at University of Pennsylvania has revealed.

Obesity is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 and above. Approximately 68 percent Americans are overweight or obese. More than 6.3 percent have a BMI of 40 or higher and are considered morbidly obese.

Obese individuals are generalized to be lazy, incompetent, and unattractive. They are also blamed for their excess weight. Due to this widespread prejudice, obese individuals are at the receiving end of public humiliation, slurs, and discrimination. This is called weight stigma.

Weight stigma increases risk of depression, anxiety and body dissatisfaction.

But it doesn’t end here. Now we know that apart from struggling with weight and dealing with incessant verbal insults and judgmental glances, silence and weight-bias internalization (WBI) can be equally criminal.

Researchers from University of Pennsylvania distributed Weight Bias Internalization Scale and Patient Health Questionnaire among 178 obese adults enrolled in weight-loss trial. Meanwhile, they measured vital statistics, such as blood pressure and waist circumference, and ran laboratory tests for fasting high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, triglycerides and glucose levels.

When the researchers studied the data, they noticed the subjects who self-internalized weight bias had high triglyceride and HDL scores. Of them, 52% had metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome is a collective term for a group of risk factors that increase your risk of diabetes and heart disease. These risk factors are; increased blood pressure (>130/85 mmHg), high blood sugar (fasting glucose 100 mg/dL or greater), abdominal obesity (or waist circumference of 40 inches or more in men; 35 inches or above in women), and high serum cholesterol or triglyceride levels (>150 mg/dL).

Per National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) report, approximately 34% individuals in the United States have metabolic syndrome.

The first-of-its-kind study sheds light on hitherto unexplored aspect of obesity and fat-shaming. Weight bias stigma is not well represented in research. This topic has hardly been addressed, if at all.

Until now we knew body shaming is an extreme form of harassment. It does not motivate obese people to lose weight. In fact, it pushes them to the limit of psychological stress where they cope up with rejection by consuming unhealthy food or binge eating. This unhealthy eating leads to further expansion in their waist size.

“When people with obesity internalize weight-based stigma that they frequently encounter in our society, it can negatively affect their mental health and lead to unhealthy behaviors like overeating,” said Rebecca L. Pearl, PhD, lead researcher and assistant professor of Psychology in the department of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine,University of Pennsylvania.

“In this study, we found evidence that weight bias internalization may also be associated with poorer physical health. These initial findings emphasize that blaming and shaming people with obesity does not help them to improve their health, and in fact may make the problem worse.”

Obese individuals also have diminished self-motivation to exercise because of being persistently stereotyped as “lazy”.

“When people with obesity internalize weight bias, they start believing that negative stereotypes apply to themselves,” said Ted Kyle, spokesperson for The Obesity Journal. “Not only is this an unfair generalization, it can actually harm the mental and physical health of people with obesity.”

Unhealthy diet may be one of the contributing factors towards metabolic syndrome and risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease but the researchers believe further studies, especially those that include in-depth dietary analysis, need to be carried out.

The study was published in journal Obesity on January 26, 2017.

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