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Weight discrimination

Weight discrimination effects depression and QoL

Credit:Flickr/Airman 1st Class Devin N. Boyer
People who felt discriminated against on the basis of their weight had a 70% increase in symptoms of depression

Weight discrimination is linked to significantly lower quality of life, and accounts for approximately 40% of the negative psychological effects associated with obesity, according to researchers from the University College London (UCL), London, UK. The study, funded by Cancer Research UK, analysed data from 5,056 UK adults and found that those who felt discriminated against on the basis of their weight had a 70% increase in symptoms of depression, a 14% drop in quality of life (QoL) and 12% lower life satisfaction, compared with those who did not perceive weight discrimination.

Jane Wardle

"Combined with our previous work showing that weight discrimination does not encourage weight loss, we can see that weight discrimination is part of the obesity problem and not the solution,” said senior author of the study, Professor Jane Wardle, director of the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Centre at UCL.  “Weight bias has been documented not only among the general public but also among health professionals; and many obese patients report being treated disrespectfully by doctors because of their weight. Everyone, including doctors, should stop blaming and shaming people for their weight, and offer support, and where appropriate, treatment."

In the paper, ‘Obesity, perceived weight discrimination, and psychological wellbeing in older adults in England’, published in Obesity, participants were asked whether they experienced day-to-day discrimination that they attributed to their weight. Participants were asked how often they encounter five discriminatory situations: ‘In your day-to-day life, how often have any of the following things happened to you’:

  • you are treated with less respect or courtesy;
  • you receive poorer service than other people in restaurants and stores;
  • people act as if they think you are not clever;
  • you are threatened or harassed;
  • you receive poorer service or treatment than other people from doctors or hospitals.

Responses ranged from ‘never’ to ‘almost every day’. Because data were highly skewed, with most participants reporting never experiencing discrimination, The researchers dichotomised responses to indicate whether or not respondents had ever experienced discrimination in any domain (never vs. all other options). Participants who reported discrimination in any of the situations were asked to indicate the reason(s) they attributed their experience to from a list of options including weight, age, gender, and race. The researchers then considered participants who attributed experiences of discrimination to their weight as cases of perceived weight discrimination.

The data come from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), a study of adults aged 50 or older. The researchers analysed the results to check whether the known association between obesity and poorer psychological wellbeing could in any part be explained by weight-related discrimination. They found that when perceived weight discrimination was accounted for, differences in wellbeing between obese and non-obese individuals were reduced substantially, suggesting that discrimination may be an important cause of low wellbeing for obese people.

"In the United Kingdom, the Equality Act 2010 legally protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of age, sex, race, disability, religion or beliefs, sexual orientation, marital status, pregnancy, or gender reassignment; making it clear that discriminatory behaviour of this nature is not to be accepted," said lead author Dr Sarah Jackson (UCL Epidemiology & Public Health). "However, our results indicate that discriminatory experiences contribute to poorer psychological wellbeing in individuals with obesity, but there are currently no laws prohibiting weight discrimination. This might send the message to people that weight discrimination is socially acceptable." 

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