Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The obesity - stress cycle

Most of us who are struggling with obesity know that the social stigma against overweight people can be painful and can lead to a cycle where obesity, stress and depression feed each other.

Over the weekend, an article titled Obesity's Hidden Peril: Stigma May Further Health Decline on the Fox News website, detailed a study about that very topic.

The article reports that:

While fewer than 5 percent of non-obese participants reported experiencing discrimination, about 11 percent of those who were moderately obese and 33 percent of those who were severely obese reported the same. These were the same individuals who also had the sharpest decline over time in their functional abilities, such as the capacity to climb stairs, or carry everyday items.

So the heavier you are, the more discrimination you face, and the more that your functional abiliites degrade over time.

What's more telling, though, is the stress created by this situation. According to the study authors, the stress of dealing with the discrimination and reduced abilities can create stress that is harmful in ways we do not see immediately:

The added stress could be keeping individuals in a constant state of arousal that they are likely not aware of but that leads to a cascade of harmful cellular effects.

The study, which was part of the as part of the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States also identified that people who believed they had experienced weight discrimination reported that they believed they were heavier than people who had not noticed such discrimination.

So what can be done with this information?

If you're looking to encourage someone to lose weight, you need to be careful to do it in an empowering way. Oversimplifying the situation ("You just need to eat less and excercise more."), villifying the person or humiliating them can contribute to this negative cycle. Instead, keep the advice informed, helpful and presented in a positive light.

From a bigger picture perspective, the study author said the country ought to consider how we can reduce weight-based discrimination.


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