Growing Obesity Rates in the US — An Indication of Systemic Racism

Published on July 20, 2022 and last updated for accuracy on July 25, 2022
Growing Obesity Rates in the US — An Indication of Systemic Racism

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that 16 US states now  have obesity rates of 35% or greater, with racial minorities experiencing a faster  increase. 

There are significant racial disparities in the effects of Obesity: A separate CDC poll  from 2017–2018 revealed that 57 percent of Black women and nearly half of the Black  individuals are obese. Nearly 45 percent of Latinos experience this, compared to 42  percent of white individuals. Adult Asians had the lowest rate, at 17%. 

This socially inequitable disparity, where the minority lacks access to health insurance  and medical care, has directly impacted people’s health. 

The Interplay of Obesity and Racism 

The first step in resolving this issue is to acknowledge the existence of the relationship  between racism and obesity. 

In a new perspective article published in the Journal of Internal Medicine, it said that  systemic racism is essentially to blame for the higher incidence of obesity among Black,  Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) compared to other groups in the United  States. 

The immense costs of not preventing and treating obesity—to lives, health, and  wealth—are made worse for BIPOC, according to co-author Fatima Cody Stanford, MD,  MPH, MPA. Stanford, an obesity medicine physician-scientist, educator, and policy  maker at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, also noted the  urgent need to investigate and address the fundamental problems at the intersection of  obesity and systemic racism. 

“Once persons recognize this, they can begin to appropriately address and treat obesity  in BIPOC communities,” adds Stanford. 

Co-author Daniel Aaron, JD, MD, an attorney at the US Food and Drug Administration,  added that in writing the article, they wanted to bring attention to the systemic racism  in the obesity epidemic and the direct harm to people of color from bearing a severe  disease that is socially caused. 

Obesity Among African Americans 

Meanwhile, according to a study published in the US National Library of Medicine  (NLM), African Americans have a disproportionately high prevalence of obesity and are  more likely to experience obesity-related comorbidities. It added that although the 

reasons for this gap are not fully understood, higher rates of perceived discrimination  against African Americans than any other racial/ethnic group have been cited as  potential contributing factors. 

In a related study published in NLM, roughly half of black women are obese. The study  also noted that black women had had the most significant increases in obesity  prevalence over the past three decades in the United States. 

A clear correlation between perceived daily racism and the frequency of obesity was  found in the study’s prospective analyses. Women who had long-term, persistent  experiences of racism were more likely to be associated. 

Rising Obesity: A Public Health Crisis 

Even more dangerous than the opioid epidemic, obesity poses a severe threat to public health. Chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, hyperlipidemia, high blood pressure,  cardiovascular disease, and cancer are associated with it. 

A 2021 study published in NLM stipulated, “Obesity is an alarmingly increasing global  public health issue. Obesity is labeled a national epidemic, and obesity affects one in  three adults and one in six children in the United States of America. Several countries  worldwide have witnessed a double or triple escalation in the prevalence of obesity in  the last three decades.” 

The study furthered that obesity has a direct impact on the following: 

  • Life expectancy; 
  • Quality of life; 
  • Prevalence of obesity-associated diseases; 
  • Employment; and 
  • Economy. 

Chronic Stress and Residential Segregation 

There have been increasing hints in recent years that stress contributes to the  emergence of obesity. These stress-inducing factors, which include lack of access to  healthcare, residential segregation, and opportunity inequity, underestimate how  minorities prosper. This can be one way to say that racial discrimination stresses  minorities in many ways. 

In their article published in the Journal of Internal Medicine, Stanford and Aaron found  that BIPOC experiences chronic stress due to racism in their contexts, which can  exacerbate obesity. Additionally, BIPOC who need assistance reducing weight encounter 

real and perceived structural racism within the medical field and have more difficulty  accessing health care. 

A recent Duke University study found that the expensive obesity epidemic in America  disproportionately affects the black and Latino populations. According to a report from  Duke’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center for Social Equity, residential segregation and a lack  of upward social mobility contributed to racial disparities in obesity rates. 

Marginalized BIPOC are more likely to reside in regions with a high concentration of  stores selling unhealthy food and few shops selling reasonably priced, wholesome food.  Even with access to supermarkets, processed food is frequently less expensive than  fruits or vegetables, and these businesses target BIPOC disproportionately in their  marketing. 

Systemic racism and its connection to the rising obesity rates among BIPOC have  received more attention in recent years. Although it hasn’t received much attention,  some studies have suggested that obesity may be a symptom of systemic racism. 

There should be a more coordinated effort to address this global public health crisis,  starting with more research funding. While there are scholars like Stanford and Aaron  and others who seek to inspire more thoughtful and transformative policy making, there  should also be a more collective approach. 

References: 

  1. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/09/29/1041515129/obesity rates-rise-during-pandemic-fueled-by-stress-job-loss-sedentary-lifestyle
  2. https://www.massgeneral.org/news/press-release/are-higher-obesity-rates-in minority-groups-a-product-of-systemic-racism-final 
  3. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/joim.13270 
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6485964/ 
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3969538/ 
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK572122/ 
  7. https://today.duke.edu/2019/07/how-segregation-and-discrimination-racialized obesity-epidemic
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