The weight of discrimination accumulates - in your fat
March 11th, 2011
05:35 PM ET

The weight of discrimination accumulates - in your fat

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. "

soundoff (75 Responses)
  1. Alan S.

    Could it be that the causal connection is not so simple? For instance, is it possible that the people who reported being victims of discrimination tended to be in lower economic classes, with less education and lower intelligence (the article said insults about intelligence were among the types of discrimination considered), and is it possible that those characteristics, rather than the discrimination itself, resulted in higher levels of visceral fat, possibly due to diet, lack of exercise, or other aspects of lifestyle?

    March 11, 2011 at 18:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tim D

      While you are in fact "correct", that means very little in the news world. Stories such as: Genetically defective people have less chance of happiness.... won't make any advertisers spend money with your publication. You have to find something SHOCKING to publish to grab the eyes of the public, even if there is absolutely no journalistic integrity behind it. Next we are going to hear a story about how driving a Mercedes s500 makes you more healthy and less likely to suffer from discrimination.

      March 11, 2011 at 18:51 | Report abuse |
    • Israel

      What you describe is commonly known as "controlling for" variables that could affect an outcome. No self respecting journal would publish a paper that doesn't properly control for these other variables that you mention. I am assuming that they did control for them, and even then, found statistical significance of the "discrimination" variable.

      March 11, 2011 at 19:22 | Report abuse |
    • M

      Also there is the problem that this is about perception of discrimination, rather than observation of discrimination. Could the sort of person who is likely to attribute experiences to discrimination also be the type of person who has visceral fat? This is an unknown.

      March 11, 2011 at 19:38 | Report abuse |
    • Rachel

      It could also possibly be that the researchers are correct with their conclusions about discrimination and visceral fat, and the cure wouldn't cost very much- simply require everyone to open their heart, discard hateful ideas, and embrace each other as brothers and sisters.
      Love is THE Answer.

      March 12, 2011 at 02:01 | Report abuse |
    • CFS Facts

      I did not have weight problems until I developed a health problem. For several years, every doctor I saw verbally abused me, accusing me of "too lazy to work" (I was still working as many hours as I could manage, though I couldn't handle full-time due to the severity of symptoms) or "trying to fleece your ex for alimony" or anything else he could think of to avoid having to search for a physical cause for the symptoms. Voila, I gained 50 pounds. As soon as I found a doctor who believed that I was physically ill, no more discrimination, my weight stabilized. The health problem itself hasn't been fixed, but at least I'm no longer getting verbal abuse for my age, gender, marital status.

      March 12, 2011 at 03:43 | Report abuse |
    • Heather

      M, very interesting thought there. I would think that nearly everyone has faced discrimination of some sort in their lives, but how they perceive and process it would be different.

      March 13, 2011 at 09:37 | Report abuse |
    • Kris

      While the covariates you list may be relevant, this short article does not tell us enough to know whether socio-economic variables were included in the model. Given it is a high quality peer reviewed journal, I would expect these alternative explanations were controlled for, or certainly listed as limitations. That said, gender and age would be random across socioeconomic status...

      the study gives credence to the concept that how we treat each other can affect our physical as well as our mental health.

      March 13, 2011 at 14:35 | Report abuse |
    • EducatedWoman

      Actually your statement is very incorrect. I am a upper middle class women with a PhD in a very male dominated field and face discrimination on a daily bases both inside the work place and outside.

      March 14, 2011 at 10:09 | Report abuse |
    • Havildar

      Intelligence might not be whether you have a Post Grad degree or have not passed High School. It might have to do with how one applys their own "native" intelligence. It might also have to do with how happy the person is. A good percentage of well educated spouses are abused by their own spouse/in-laws, etc. In these studies how the question was asked would give you different results? ( ex. If the question is asked in WI of eligible voters would you Vote for Mr Walker, who to balance the budget would cut your benefits and Salaries and even cause you to lose your Job? What percentage would say yes to this? Same person if asked Walker is a Teaparty Republican Fully funded by the Koch Brothers/Wall Street/etc. would you vote for Him? It certainly would be interesting.)

      March 14, 2011 at 11:19 | Report abuse |
  2. L

    among all kinds of excuses for being fat... this is the funniest one...

    March 11, 2011 at 20:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • hahahahahaha

      @L – I guess laughing at fat people keeps you too busy to find an excuse for your stupidity.

      March 12, 2011 at 20:50 | Report abuse |
    • Sandy

      Perhaps you missed the definition of visceral fat - it's fat around the viscera (internal organs), not the sort of fat you're laughing at. You could be loaded with it yourself, even if you look thin. Pretty funny, eh?

      March 12, 2011 at 21:17 | Report abuse |
    • lee

      Please, learn how to re-read. The article states "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."

      On a side note, if you get your kicks from laughing at others because of their weight; you need a life. I feel sorry for people who are severely over weight.

      March 14, 2011 at 15:48 | Report abuse |
  3. Bree

    bahahah. Is this study for real??? Discrimination causes visceral fat. Hmm, wonder if there are any other factors that could contribute to that. Nope, I guess everyone just is physic and judging you based on your visceral fat, and that causes even more to form.

    March 11, 2011 at 20:34 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hintofgray

      A "physic"? I love it when some mental midget comments on the value of one of these studies and yet can't spell a one-syllable word.

      March 11, 2011 at 22:28 | Report abuse |
    • lol

      Umm psychic is 2 syllables moron.

      March 12, 2011 at 03:30 | Report abuse |
    • CalgarySandy

      Just to keep it going. I believe by "one syllable" he was metaphorically referring to the fact that he did not even use the correct word. "Physic" does have 2 syllables but the proper word is "physical" a 3 syllable word.

      March 12, 2011 at 15:38 | Report abuse |
    • Joe C.

      If you eat your vegetables, you don't need a physic. And if you exercise, you have a physique. That said, "dunderheaded" is 4 syllables, with the accents on 1 and 3, just like in country music. And I bet Taylor Swift has very little visceral fat. And Kanye West probably has more. So there. Case closed.

      March 12, 2011 at 16:55 | Report abuse |
    • Health Teach

      Hmmm, and hear I thought that the word meant was "psychic," as in someone with extra sensory powers, not "physical."

      Please help me understand how the three-syllable word physical would make sense in that sentence grammatically instead of the two-syllable one "psychic" that was obviously just rushed in spelling?

      March 13, 2011 at 16:31 | Report abuse |
    • Health Teach


      (I hate the spelling police.)

      March 13, 2011 at 16:32 | Report abuse |
    • Martin

      The intended word was obviously psychic. It has two syllables and is an adjective. The word actually used, physic, is a noun and, being used as an adjective, makes no sense in the sentence. The writer was making a joke that maybe people can somehow sense that someone has the kind of fat described in the article and discriminate against them based on that. . Physical and psychic are both adjectives, so grammatically speaking either can work, though only psychic would make any sense. Regardless of the poor choice of words and the questionable taste of the joke, I also thought this was a stupid study and don't believe the interpretation of the totally subjective data (how do you reliably measure how someone was discriminated against???)

      March 14, 2011 at 12:55 | Report abuse |
  4. Back at you

    Stress cortisol response deserves study: does it really exist, what is the distribution of innate variation, how much of it is acquired, is it susceptible to behavioral or medical intervention?

    Are "insults about lower intelligence" a result of actual lower intelligence, as much as they might be just immature name-calling in a generally toxic social milieu? What insults were most common on your childhood playground? Doofus, idiot, moron, cretin, stupid, fat, ...

    Is it not more valuable to investigate destructive physiological/behavioral feedback syndromes, than to just be so bluntly dismissive of the suffering subjects as being under an irremediable burden of genetic or moral defects?

    March 11, 2011 at 20:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • CFS Facts

      I like your stress cortisol theory. In my case, every discriminatory remark was based on stereotypes rather than truth - "too lazy to work" when I was still working, "trying to get alimony" when I was the primary breadwinner throughout the marriage, "depressed divorcee" when actually I was thrilled to be rid of that albatross... As stressful as it was to be ill, it was even more stressful to be falsely accused by doctors who completely ignored the history they'd been given. And the financial stress caused by getting sicker because I wasn't getting proper treatment; at one point, I was down to working only an hour a day (if that much).

      March 12, 2011 at 03:50 | Report abuse |
    • CalgarySandy

      The role of stress related cortisol creation has been the subject of a sh1t load of research. Stressors differ for different people. If you are extremely intelligent and like it and are accepted despite it you are probably not stressed by it. If you are extremely intelligent and are insulted on a regular basis as if you chose to be intelligent in order to annoy people you are likely very stressed. Set and Setting.

      March 12, 2011 at 15:42 | Report abuse |
    • Elizabeth

      A cortisol and fat connection is well known. I have rheumatoid arthritis, and struggle with fat, even though I don't eat a high calorie diet. But what causes these auto-immune diseases... stress of some kind, and certainly name-calling causes stress. But, foods that might cause these problems must be studied and ruled out.

      Every single vitamin and mineral has been studied to prove exactly how much (at a minimum) is needed, and in some cases what is an overdose, but there is no such care taken with other foods such as corn syrup which doesn't occur in nature. What could trigger such a massive response in the body that can be measured with blood tests that show the inflammation (the sedimentation rate)? It is very important to find these connections, because you can't always stop bullying, but a person can at least provide themselves with foods that stop some of the stress reactions, and do not cause more.

      Very often, I am surprised at the bullying tone of some of the comments, when people are trying to think of ways to help; are these people trying to take credit for everybody else's illnesses? Are they dissatisfied with the fact that they aren't doing the research themselves, or that they aren't helping others?

      March 12, 2011 at 23:02 | Report abuse |
  5. ringo

    Or, people who are infected with h.pylori are more likely to interpret comments as negative (stomach ache > "I feel aggravated" > my most recent experience must be aggravating).

    And, people who are infected with h.pylori are more likely to eat fatty foods (makes them briefly feel better).

    Feel free to swap in "yeast" or "toxoplasmosis" or whatever you prefer for "h. pylori".

    March 11, 2011 at 22:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Bob The Builder

    I wear hats all the time.

    March 11, 2011 at 23:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tzckrl

      Cool! I'm into ball caps myself. Have two of 'em.

      March 12, 2011 at 17:22 | Report abuse |
    • SpiderMan

      and you should thank your parents for starting it all out for you....

      with a helmet you had to wear as a kid on the short yellow bus!

      March 14, 2011 at 08:59 | Report abuse |
  7. tct

    By their methodology is there anyone who HASN'T been "discriminated against" in the last year?

    March 12, 2011 at 08:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • CalgarySandy

      I sure every one has been insulted a few times in the last year. It becomes a problem when it is frequent and sustained. It is a problem when it is so common that you start to anticipate it and live in a constant state of readiness. And again, what stresses some does not stress others. That does not make one more right than the other.

      Insulting anyone for any reason should not be seen as fun or acceptable, though I realize that TV, Movies, Ads, sports and advertising contribute to it by making it seem acceptable. Personally, I think it is fun and more or less acceptable to slam trolls when they get totally out of hand the same way you smack a dog for trying to eat your baby.

      March 12, 2011 at 15:49 | Report abuse |
    • pazke

      I think I would answer "no" to the question (as stated in the article). Sure, I've had altercations in the past year, but I don't feel that anyone mistreated me because of my race, gender, social status, etc. Sometimes I get poor customer service, but I'm sure the poor service was dished out evenly across the board and not directed at me based on some stereotype.

      March 13, 2011 at 22:03 | Report abuse |
  8. Martin

    This is one of the most implausible studies I've ever heard of! How do you measure how much people are discriminated against? How do you know their weight had nothing to to with it? Ridiculous!!!

    March 12, 2011 at 13:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Comrade01

      Obviously you haven't taken an intro level stats class in college or you would know the answer to your question. Instead of trying to denigrate researchers, look at your own background.

      March 12, 2011 at 15:50 | Report abuse |
    • Health Teach

      Actually, I have taken several advanced level statistics classes and asked the same question... The problem is that a person's perception of being discriminated against is what is actually being measured and less so the actual discrimination. So, one could then say that people with more visceral fat perceive a higher level of discrimination.

      March 13, 2011 at 16:24 | Report abuse |
    • pazke

      Health Teach – it IS the perception of discrimation and not the actual discrimination that causes, say, a rise in cortisol. While you could say that people with more visceral fat are more likely to perceive discrimination. However, measuring a person's "perceived" discrimination rather than "actual" discrimination does not cause a problem with the study.

      March 13, 2011 at 22:07 | Report abuse |
    • Health Teach


      Perhaps my point was too subtle... Theoretically it could be that the genetically weak perceive that they are being discriminated against causing not only the visceral fat but other body problems as well.

      March 14, 2011 at 14:44 | Report abuse |
  9. D

    I agree with those who say that the study is only showing correlation between perceived discrimination and visceral fat. Those who have a worldview that they are being discriminated against may may in fact just be more anxious generally and therefore have higher levels of cortisol. It is annoying that this interpretation is not presented in the article here. However, it may be mentioned in the original peer-reviewed journal article.

    March 12, 2011 at 14:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. beardedrunner

    The number of meaningless studies and pointless statistics that amass from them are mind numbing. People overweight or not are more efficient than ever at deflecting responsibility instead of taking actual action. As far as the obese and the overweight are concerned there's a simple solution: Reduce calorie intake while reducing sedintarism and adapting overtime to body efficiency. Of course there are genetic factors that contribute to obesity but these contribute only slightly, not wholly. It's calories in calories out, that's it.

    March 12, 2011 at 14:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • hahahahahaha

      Simple solutions for simple minds.

      March 12, 2011 at 21:00 | Report abuse |
  11. chefdugan

    Enough already. Fat is fat, its ugly and ugly people get discriminated against even though most of them don't deserve it. As for the Blacks, they think they're discriminated against even when they're not. It's in their genes. If you're white they call it whining.

    March 12, 2011 at 15:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • hahahahahaha

      Fat is not the only "ugly" in this world. There's a whole lot of skinny ugly, too.

      March 12, 2011 at 21:03 | Report abuse |
    • Loren

      This isn't about VISIBLE fat, this is about VISCERAL fat. Deep fat you can't see.........

      March 12, 2011 at 22:06 | Report abuse |
    • pazke

      "As for the Blacks, they think they're discriminated against even when they're not. It's in their genes. If you're white they call it whining". IT'S IN THEIR GENES? You really don't see anything wrong with this statement? So tell me, are you a troll or a bigot?

      March 13, 2011 at 22:10 | Report abuse |
  12. someoneelse

    Individual discrimination is stupid, but this study is even more so.

    March 12, 2011 at 17:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Abe Vigoda

    This study seems only to reinforce the prior research linking cortisol & stress to fat gain. Throwing discrimination into the study as a stressor was just a way for the researchers to make a splash with the results. This country is obsessed with discrimination, so this makes an enticing headline. Whether the subjects were actually discriminated against is irrelevant to the results. Feeling discriminated against (true or not) will reasonably cause stress. The bottom line for people's health seems to be the same as before. Effectively dealing with your personal stressors (job, kids, discrimination, etc) is the key to avoiding many health problems, including obesity. The results of this study hardly seem worth publishing.

    March 12, 2011 at 17:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • sam

      you said it, this country is obsessed with discrimination. the norm being English rich white male, everything else is being pointed out, made fun of, intimidated, in all discriminated upon. if you want to solve any kind of health and social problem in this country, better start at educating people to accept one another, and stop pointing out differences and stop the bulling. this should start in kinder-garden.

      March 13, 2011 at 19:28 | Report abuse |
  14. Shane

    You're all idiots. Bree meant to type "psychics"–as in being able to read someone's mind. And yes, it's a two-syllabel word.

    March 12, 2011 at 18:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • hahahahahaha

      I believe "psychic" is a two "syllable" word.

      March 12, 2011 at 20:55 | Report abuse |
    • Joan Baez

      But "love" is just a four-letter word.

      March 13, 2011 at 12:35 | Report abuse |
    • Jujubeans

      Haven't figured out the "reply" button yet?

      March 14, 2011 at 13:37 | Report abuse |
  15. Gretchen

    That's interesting. I suppose it's any kind of upsetness or frustration that could cause this kind of belly fat. I wonder if getting rid of the stress will mean you get rid of that belly fat.

    March 12, 2011 at 21:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Danko Ramone

    To say "discrimination," is the cause, is wrong. The problem lies within the mind, as while discrimination does clearly exist, one's experience of it is based on perception. While the body apparently responds in some manner, it's response is based on the brain's function, and the signals it sends. It's reasonable and logical to assume some who had/have this problem were not discriminated against but *believed* they were, and some who didn't notice or realize the discrimination they encountered likely did not have the problem.

    March 13, 2011 at 04:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. L. Davis

    Could it be that fat people sublimate their unmet needs for acceptance into greater eating?

    March 13, 2011 at 14:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. bill

    What if you lived in a country where flowers were illegal and the Feds could crash your door and take away everything?
    Sounds like a cortisol dream to me.
    No wonder America is so obsese.

    March 13, 2011 at 16:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. sam

    I tend to believe this article. no less any stress from the outside world leaves marks on our bodies. when people are stressed they eat more. when people treat you bad, you get stressed. I've been experience lots of discrimination in my life and I can tell you that I feel it on my body.

    March 13, 2011 at 19:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. A.S.

    I do not eat more when I am STRESSED...I eat less. And the above article is SO TRUE...I am mid to upper class as far as a catetgory and am educated, however, I am discriminated against at times due to the fact that I am a woman, at times appears younger to some, even though I am 30 yrs old, and the fact that I am NOW a single Mother, unless of course the single Mom thing is just a Utah thing...I don't know. When people stop and listen to the fact that I accomplished such & such in my Life and ACTUALLY MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN THE WORLD, THEY ARE LIKE WOW!!

    March 13, 2011 at 20:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Swami

    Correlation is not causation.
    Repeat it. Use it as a mantra, and seek enlightenment. Correlation is not causation. Correlation is not causation. Correlation is not causation.

    That being said, an evolutionary stress-fat connection seems sensible. But "seems" is not "proven to be".

    March 13, 2011 at 20:58 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Blue Person Group

      Thanks for being a voice of reason. This is really nothing more than a report of correlation, and hardly a surprising one. Poverty, low education levels and race are more likely to "cause" both discrimination and obesity than either is likely to "cause" the other.

      Why not study cultural ties to African tribal society, where obesity is sometimes valued in the mate-selection process? In a Darwinian sense, this could lead to a genetic pre-disposition to obesity in subsequent generations.

      Or, just blame it all on McDonalds. That's the easy way out, right, Mrs. Obama?

      March 14, 2011 at 07:45 | Report abuse |
  22. Skype

    Birthing and raising a useless, absent baby-daddy's offspring would certainly be stressful.

    March 13, 2011 at 22:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Neal

    I've read too many rapists claiming they came to be they way they are due to discrimination from society in general and women in particular. What now?

    March 13, 2011 at 22:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • pazke

      Well, now on top of being rapists, they are also at higher risk for heart disease and diabetes.

      March 13, 2011 at 22:11 | Report abuse |
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    March 14, 2011 at 00:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Sandy

    Ridiculous. Over the course of a year, not enough fat "change" would have happened to even imply correlation. BOGUS STUDY. Study is too generous a word...

    March 14, 2011 at 08:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. bigrick

    why "discrimination"? Why not just stress in general. The study itself says that the body produces this kind of fat when under "stress".....not necessarily stress caused by discrimination. The fact that the study group reported a higher rate of discrimination doesn't suggest anything to me. If they asked 100 questions....and out of all of them the rate of discrimination was consistently high and nothing else was...then that might mean something

    March 14, 2011 at 11:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. JS

    Still another study that allows one to become a victim and blame others for their problems.

    March 14, 2011 at 12:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. J A

    Be nice to one another to keep each other healthy? Great idea, but not realistic. Just read the above comments and see all the insults, sarcasm, name calling. It's pathetic.

    March 14, 2011 at 13:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. ****


    March 14, 2011 at 13:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Mel

    It's an oxymoron that the article is about over weight women, yet you choose not have an image of an overweight woman at the head of the article. You choose a thin white woman. By the way, how many women anchors are overweight on CNN. I see only one.

    March 14, 2011 at 13:31 | Report abuse | Reply
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    I saw on TV there was a pill to get rid of "ugleebellyvat" (you have to make your mouth go wacky to say it right).

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