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Growing Obesity Rates in the US — An Indication of Systemic Racism
Published on July 20, 2022 and last updated for accuracy on August 12, 2022
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
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.
- https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/09/29/1041515129/obesity rates-rise-during-pandemic-fueled-by-stress-job-loss-sedentary-lifestyle
- https://www.massgeneral.org/news/press-release/are-higher-obesity-rates-in minority-groups-a-product-of-systemic-racism-final
- https://today.duke.edu/2019/07/how-segregation-and-discrimination-racialized obesity-epidemic