March 11th, 2011
05:35 PM ET
Sticks and stones may break your bones. But words may hurt you in ways that you didn’t even know.
A Yale University study found that women who’ve reported high levels of discrimination have more visceral fat, a type of fat that lies deep and surrounds abdominal organs.
Unlike the kind of fat that manifests in rolls and flaps, visceral fat can accumulate without people realizing it. Even skinny people can have unhealthy amounts of visceral fat wrapping their organs. This type of fat has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and other major health problems.
A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology examined 402 African-American and white women in the Chicago area. They were asked whether they had been discriminated against based on their sex, age, race and other issues over the last year. This included insults about intelligence, subtle slights, mistreatment in restaurants or stores and harassment.
Researchers did not ask about weight discrimination, because they didn’t want it to bias the results.
Then, the women’s abdominal fat was measured in tomography scans.
Yale researchers found that women who reported more discrimination carried more visceral fat.
It’s widely believed that overweight people are discriminated based on their hefty size. But author Tené Lewis said, “We didn’t find an association with the fat you see – the subcutaneous fat hanging over people’s belt. It’s the fat that’s not visible to the naked eye.”
Her study suggests that discrimination could contribute to increased internal fat. The biological mechanism of how that could occur is unknown, said Lewis, assistant professor at Yale School of Public Health.
But one of their hypotheses is that the body releases a hormone called cortisol under stress. That hormone is believed to spur the accumulation of visceral fat.
Lewis did not find a difference between whites and African Americans in terms of health and discrimination.
“Anyone who experiences this is at risk for health consequences,” she said. “You don’t have to be black, Hispanic or in the ethnic minorities. Having this kind of experience is bad for you.”
She concluded: “The way people treat one another has a real effect on health outcomes. These experiences make a difference. "
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.