A new analysis by researchers at the Slone Epidemiology Center at Boston University finds that frequent experiences of racism are associated with a higher risk of obesity among African American women. That link was strongest among women who reported consistently high experiences of racism over a 12-year period. The research was based on data from the Black Women’s Health Study, a longitudinal study that enrolled 59,000 African-American women in 1995 and has followed them continually.
According to data reviewed by the study authors, about half of African American women are currently classified as obese which is a risk factor for a number of conditions including cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, orthopedic problems, and death. The researchers classify racism as psychosocial stress and say that both animal and human data indicate that chronic exposure to stress can result in dysregulation of important neuroendocrine functions which can result in the accumulation of excess body fat.
The Black Women’s Health Study collected information on lifestyle factors, experiences of racism, height and weight and other factors through surveys conducted every two years. The participants were asked in 1997 and in 2009 to rate the frequency of “everyday” experiences of racism, such as receiving poorer service in restaurants and stores, and if they had been treated unfairly because of their race on the job, in housing or by the police, referred to as “lifetime racism.”
The researchers analyzed racism data for women who were under the age of 40 at the beginning of the study because most adult weight gain in women occurs during the reproductive years. The researchers found that women reporting the highest rates of everyday racism in both 1997 and 2009 were 69 percent more likely to become obese compared to those in the lowest category at both of those years. The women who reported more lifetime racism were also at increased risk of obesity.
“Experiences of racism may explain in part the high prevalence of obesity among African American women,” explained Yvette C. Cozier, DSc, MPH, assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University and lead author of the review. “Work place and community-based programs to combat racism and interventions to reduce racism-induced stress could be an important component of strategies for prevention of obesity, especially in communities at high risk,” says Cozier.
The study was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology and funded by the Aetna Foundation and the National Cancer Institute.