Researchers find weight discrimination is linked to increased risk of mortality

October 15, 2015, Florida State University
A photograph of Florida State University College of Medicine researchers Antonio Terracciano and Angelina R. Sutin. Credit: Colin Hackley

In recent years, Florida State University College of Medicine researchers Angelina R. Sutin and Antonio Terracciano have found that people who experience weight discrimination are more likely to become or remain obese, to develop chronic health problems and to have a lower satisfaction with life.

Now they've found that people who report being subjected to also have a greater risk of dying. Not because they may be overweight, but because of the apparent effects of the discrimination. Their findings have been published in Psychological Science.

Sutin and colleagues examined data involving more than 18,000 people from separate longitudinal studies, comparing those who reported experiencing weight discrimination with those who did not. Accounting for other factors that might explain a greater risk for mortality, the researchers found that individuals reporting weight discrimination had a 60 percent greater chance of dying over the follow-up period.

"What we found is that this isn't a case of people with a higher body-mass index (BMI) being at an of mortality—and they happen to also report being subjected to weight discrimination," said Sutin, assistant professor of behavioral sciences and social medicine at the medical school. "Independent of what their BMI actually is, weight discrimination is associated with increased risk of mortality."

Data came from two long-term and ongoing studies. The Health and Retirement Study (HRS), which began in 1992 at the University of Michigan with support from the National Institute on Aging (NIA), involved more than 13,000 men and women with an average age of 68 for the time period Sutin and Terracciano examined.

Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) is a study begun in 1995 by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development with support from the NIA. Sutin and Terracciano examined MIDUS data involving about 5,000 men and women with an average age of 48.

Results were consistent across both groups of study subjects. In both samples, the researchers accounted for BMI, subjective health, disease burden, depressive symptoms, smoking history, and physical activity as indicators of mortality risk, but the association with weight discrimination remained.

"To our knowledge, this is the first time that this has been shown—that weight discrimination is associated with an increased risk of mortality," said Terracciano, associate professor in the College of Medicine's Department of Geriatrics.

Sutin points to a series of studies involving both experimental and epidemiological approaches examining links between weight discrimination and health. "Ours and other groups' epidemiological work converge with evidence from experimental research," Sutin said. "The experimental work shows the immediate effects of weightism and our work shows the consequence over the lifespan."

Weight discrimination is not always meant to be mean-spirited, but a body of evidence demonstrates that it has harmful effects nonetheless. Previous studies indicate that teasing a person to lose weight has the opposite effect over the long-term, including a study by Sutin and Terracciano that was published in PLOS ONE in 2013. Indeed, people who are stigmatized because of their weight are more likely to engage in the kind of behavior that contributes to obesity, including unhealthy eating and avoiding .

Some people think, 'Oh, well, you're just hurting somebody's feelings when you say something bad about their weight, but it will motivate them to lose weight, which will save their life,'" Sutin said.

Sutin points out that contrary to such beliefs, in addition to the psychological effects, weightism increases the risk of weight gain and premature mortality. "Our research has shown that very clearly this type of approach does not work and there are really serious consequences to it," Sutin said.

Explore further: 'Weightism' increases risk for becoming, staying obese

Related Stories

'Weightism' increases risk for becoming, staying obese

July 24, 2013
Weight discrimination may increase risk for obesity rather than motivating individuals to lose weight, according to research published July 24 in the open access journal PLoS ONE by Angelina Sutin and Antonio Terracciano ...

Perceived age and weight discrimination worse for health than perceived racism and sexism

May 7, 2014
Perceived age and weight discrimination, more than perceived race and sex discrimination, are linked to worse health in older adults, according to new research from the Florida State University College of Medicine.

Seeing selves as overweight may be self-fulfilling prophecy for some teens

January 28, 2015
Teens who mistakenly perceive themselves as overweight are actually at greater risk of obesity as adults, according to research findings forthcoming in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological ...

Weight gain linked with personality trait changes

May 6, 2013
People who gain weight are more likely to give in to temptations but also are more thoughtful about their actions, according to a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological ...

Researcher exploring why obesity strikes so hard among Mexican-American boys

May 15, 2015
Fifteen percent of non-Hispanic white children in the United States are obese, but among Mexican-American boys the figure is a much more troubling 23 percent. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, Angelina ...

Weight discrimination has major impact on quality of life

March 24, 2015
Weight discrimination is linked to significantly lower quality of life, and accounts for approximately 40% of the negative psychological effects associated with obesity, finds new UCL research funded by Cancer Research UK.

Recommended for you

Can we really tell if it's love at first sight?

May 25, 2018
Long-term and short-term relationships are obviously different from each other. Some people are the type you'd want to marry; others are good primarily for the sex.

People with family history of alcoholism release more dopamine in expectation of alcohol

May 23, 2018
People with a family history of alcohol use disorder (AUD) release more dopamine in the brain's main reward center in response to the expectation of alcohol than people diagnosed with the disorder, or healthy people without ...

Why we fail to understand our smartphone use

May 23, 2018
Checking your phone dozens of times a day indicates unconscious behaviour, which is "extremely repetitive" say psychologists.

Study confirms that men and women tend to adopt different navigation strategies

May 23, 2018
When navigating in a known environment, men prefer to take shortcuts to reach their destination more quickly, while women tend to use routes they know. This is according to Alexander Boone of UC Santa Barbara in the US who ...

Early life trauma in men associated with reduced levels of sperm microRNAs

May 22, 2018
Exposure to early life trauma can lead to poor physical and mental health in some individuals, which can be passed on to their children. Studies in mice show that at least some of the effects of stress can be transmitted ...

Training compassion 'muscle' may boost brain's resilience to others' suffering

May 22, 2018
It can be distressing to witness the pain of family, friends or even strangers going through a hard time. But what if, just like strengthening a muscle or learning a new hobby, we could train ourselves to be more compassionate ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.