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    Perceived weight discrimination linked to physical inactivity

    By Sarah Jackson, on 8 March 2017

    Rises in obesity prevalence over recent decades have corresponded with increasing stigmatisation of, and discrimination against, individuals living with obesity. Weight stigma is often justified on the basis that it might encourage people to lose weight, but a growing evidence base indicates that experiences of weight-related stigmatisation may in fact encourage behaviours that promote obesity.

    A few small studies have indicated that people who face weight stigma are more inclined to avoid physical activity, but none have been able to clearly establish what effect experiencing stigma has on actual exercise behaviour.

    In a new study published today in BMJ Open we explored the relationship between weight discrimination and physical activity. The research involved 5,480 men and women aged 50 years and older taking part in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, a large population-based cohort of middle-aged and older adults living in England.

    Overall, one in twenty people said they had been discriminated against because of their weight, ranging from lack of respect or courtesy to being threatened or harassed. Rates of weight discrimination varied considerably according to how overweight a person was, from 0.9% of people with a body mass index (BMI) in the overweight range (25-29.9) to 13.4% of people with obesity (BMI greater than 30).

    Importantly, we found that people who had experienced weight-related discrimination had almost 60% higher odds of being inactive and 30% lower odds of engaging in moderate or vigorous exercise once a week than their peers.

    Interestingly, a person’s BMI in itself did not affect the relationship between weight discrimination and exercise, indicating that people who experience weight-related discrimination are likely to be less physically active, regardless of their weight.

    There could be several reasons for our findings. People who feel stigmatised may be more self-conscious about exercising in front of others for fear they will attract undesirable attention, leading to embarrassment or teasing. They may also begin to believe the negative stereotypes against themselves as lazy and worthless, leaving them wondering why they should bother trying to be active.

    Given the substantial benefits of being physically active for both physical and mental health, interventions that aim to reduce weight bias at a population level – for example through schools, local communities or national campaigns – may have greater impact on health than those that encourage people to lose weight. A Health at Every Size approach may be helpful in encouraging people to develop and maintain healthy habits, including regular physical activity, for the sake of health and wellbeing as opposed to weight control.

     

    Article link:
    Jackson SE, Steptoe A. Association between perceived weight discrimination and physical activity: a population-based study in English middle-aged and older adults. BMJ Open. 2017;7:e014592.
    http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/7/3/e014592.info

    Weight discrimination is chronically stressful

    By Sarah Jackson, on 18 October 2016

    Stigmatisation of obesity remains one of “the last acceptable forms of prejudice”.  People with obesity are widely stereotyped as lazy, weak willed and personally to blame for their weight by the media, employers, educators, health care professionals, and even their friends and family.

    Facing discrimination can understandably be very stressful in the moment.  Small experiments have shown that asking people to watch a video that stigmatises obesity, or telling them that their body size and shape are unsuitable to take part in a group activity, increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva.

    But what wasn’t known until now was whether discrimination has lasting effects on stress levels.  This is important because acute (short-term) stress is a protective, adaptive response whereas chronic stress can have a damaging effect on the body.

    In a new study published last week in Obesity we explored the relationship between weight discrimination and chronic stress.  The research involved 563 men and women with obesity (body mass index ≥30) aged 50 years and older taking part in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), a large population-based cohort of middle-aged and older adults living in England.

    Rather than measuring levels of cortisol in saliva, which are sensitive to daily fluctuations and short-term factors such as diet, we analysed cortisol levels in hair.  Measuring hair cortisol is a new technique that gives an indication of average levels of cortisol in the body over several months.  Hair grows at approximately 1 cm per month, so the 1 cm of hair nearest to the scalp represents average exposure to cortisol over the last month.

    We found that one in eight people with obesity had experienced discrimination because of their weight, ranging from lack of respect or courtesy to being threatened or harassed.  Among people with severe obesity (BMI ≥40), one in three reported discrimination.

    Importantly, our findings revealed that average levels of cortisol in hair were 33% higher in individuals who had experienced weight discrimination than those who had not.  People who experienced more frequent weight discrimination had higher hair cortisol levels than those who faced less regular discrimination.

    The results of this study provide evidence that weight discrimination is associated with the experience of stress at a biological level.  Because experiencing high levels of cortisol over a prolonged period can have a substantial impact on health and wellbeing, it is likely that weight discrimination contributes to many of the negative psychological and biological consequences of obesity.  In addition, cortisol is known to increase appetite and fat storage, making people who experience weight discrimination more likely to gain weight.

     

    Article link:

    Jackson SE, Kirschbaum C, Steptoe A. Perceived weight discrimination and chronic biochemical stress: A population-based study using cortisol in scalp hair. Obesity. First published ahead of print 14 October 2016. doi:10.1002/oby.21657

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/oby.21657/full

    The lowdown on lung cancer stigma

    By Laura Marlow, on 17 February 2015

    Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the UK with over 40,000 people diagnosed each year.  Smoking accounts for around 86% of lung cancer cases and studies have shown that most people are now well aware of the link between smoking and lung cancer risk.

    While public health campaigns have successfully portrayed smoking as an undesirable behaviour, stigmatising lung cancer seems to have been a by-product of this success. Studies suggest that many lung cancer patients feel stigmatised and the link with smoking is often offered as an explanation for this.  In a study published online last week, we show that lung cancer patients’ perceptions of stigma are reflected in the general population, with greater stigma attributed to lung cancer than to other cancer types.

    In our study, 1205 men and women answered questions about lung, skin, breast, bowel or cervical cancer.  The questions used were taken from the recently developed Cancer Stigma Scale  which assesses six dimensions of cancer-related stigma: Awkwardness, Severity, Avoidance, Policy Opposition, Personal Responsibility and Financial Discrimination.

    Participants  who answered questions about lung cancer generally gave higher ratings on the stigma scale than those who were asked about other cancers.  They rated lung cancer patients as more responsible for their illness and reported being more likely to avoid people with lung cancer.  They said they would feel more awkward around people with lung cancer, and were more tolerant of financial discrimination and lower levels of support for patients with the disease.  They also considered lung cancer to have more severe consequences than other cancers, which is consistent with the poor survival rates among lung cancer patients.

    There were some exceptions, for example personal responsibility was judged to be similar for skin and lung cancer patients, probably because of the role of sun exposure in skin cancer risk.  Perceived awkwardness scores were similar for bowel and lung cancer patients.

    Negative perceptions of lung cancer can have a negative impact on patient experience and funding contributions.  They may also have an impact on preventive behaviours among smokers, such as seeking medical help for cancer symptoms or participation in lung screening if this is introduced.  We need to find ways of limiting cancer stigma for patients, health professionals and the community, while still promoting public health messages about lifestyle based cancer prevention – perhaps a difficult balance to achieve.

    Article reference: Marlow LAV, Waller J, Wardle J. Does Lung cancer attract greater stigma than other cancer types? Lung Cancer, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.lungcan.2015.01.024

    To achieve weight loss, fat shaming is not the answer

    By Susanne Meisel, on 11 September 2014

    Negative attitudes towards obese individuals therefore remain one of the ‘last socially acceptable forms of prejudice’ . One has only to glance at the ‘comments’ section of media reports discussing obesity to realise that obese people are openly subjected to labelling and stereotyping, and some outright abusive attacks. Unfortunately, stereotypes of the overweight and obese are held across all segments of society, including those working in health and social care .

    Despite solid evidence (and frequent discussion on this blog) showing conclusively that whole host of factors contribute to excessive weight gain,currently, responsibility for maintaining a healthy weight rests solely with the individual. Therefore, people may think that stigmatising those who ‘refuse’ to conform to the ‘societal imperative’ is justified . Some may go even further and claim that stigmatising overweight and obese people would encourage them to lose weight. However, when our researchers looked at the scientific literature surrounding stigma and weight loss, there was little evidence showing whether this was actually true.

    To find out whether weight and the experience of stigma are related in some way, researchers from our department looked at data from 2,944 UK adults over four years who participated in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), a study of adults aged 50 or older. Participants are weighed and measured every four years, and asked questions on a range of topics every two years.

    To assess stigma, 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: 1) You are treated with less respect or courtesy; 2) you receive poorer service than other people in restaurants and stores; 3) people act as if they think you are not clever; 4) you are threatened or harassed; 5) you receive poorer service or treatment than other people from doctors or hospitals. Responses ranged from ‘never’ to ‘almost every day’. 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 considered participants who attributed experiences of discrimination to their weight as cases of perceived weight discrimination. Because many participants reported never experiencing discrimination, the researchers divided responses to indicate whether or not respondents had ever experienced discrimination in any domain (never vs. all other options).

    Of the 2,944 eligible participants in the study, 5% reported weight discrimination. This ranged from less than 1% of those in the ‘normal weight’ category to 36% of those classified as ‘‘morbidly obese’. Men and women reported similar levels of weight discrimination.

    However, those who reported experiencing weight discrimination gained more weight than those who did not over the 4-year period. On average, after taking baseline differences in BMI, gender, age and personal wealth into account, people who reported weight discrimination gained 0.95kg whereas those who did not lost 0.71kg, a difference of 1.66kg.

    However, because this study looked only at the relationship of perceived stigma and weight gain, we cannot conclude that stigma caused weight gain – it could also be that weight gain increased perceived stigma, or that a third factor influenced both weight gain and stigma. To conclusively establish whether stigma indeed causes weight gain, we would have to run a controlled experiment with at least two groups of similarly overweight people, where one group is subjected to stigma over a period of time, and the other one is not, and then measure their weight at the end of the study. Of course, such an experiment would be highly unethical, given the damaging effects of stigma on psychological health. Another limitation of this study was that discrimination was assessed two years after the initial weight measurements and two years before the final measurements, although the researchers controlled statistically for this.

    However, regardless of its limitations, this study showed that weight discrimination is definitely not associated with weight loss. This means that there was no evidence for the idea that stigmatising overweight and obese individuals would motivate them to lose weight. in many cases, it may even hinder weight loss. Therefore, we should work towards removing prejudice and blame from weight loss advice and should focus on positively supporting those who are trying to lose weight. One way may be to teach active coping strategies and increasing acceptance-based elements into weight loss programmes because this has had some promising effects. Furthermore, we will need to continue highlighting the complex causes of obesity rather than relying on simplistic representations, and increase work to acknowledge and address weight-related stigma, to make the ‘last socially acceptable form of prejudice’ unacceptable.

     

    Article link:

    Jackson, S. E., Beeken, R. J., & Wardle, J. (2014). Perceived weight discrimination and changes in weight, waist circumference, and weight status. Obesity, n/a.  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/oby.20891/full