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Racial Discrimination Shows to Affect Childhood Obesity Rates

At least one experience of racial discrimination resulted in an increase in BMI and waist circumference one year later.

Is racial discrimination contributing to the childhood obesity crisis? It could be, according to a group of researchers from the New York University School of Global Health.

Kids who experienced more instances of racism or racial discrimination ended up having higher BMI and bigger waist circumference a year later, the researchers wrote in JAMA Network Open, signaling yet another way the weathering hypothesis holds up in medicine.

“Exposure to racial discrimination must be acknowledged as both a social determinant of obesity and a significant contributor to obesity disparities among children and adolescents,” Adolfo Cuevas, assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at the NYU School of Global Public Health and the study’s lead author, stated publicly.

While childhood obesity is a problem across all sociodemographics, racial health disparities are present. Black and Hispanic kids are more likely to have obesity than their White and Asian American peers, the researchers said, due in part to social determinants of health like parent education, single-parent homes, poverty levels, and neighborhood.

This latest study adds another factor to the mix: experiences of racism or racial discrimination.

The researchers looked at nearly 6,500 kids aged 9 to 11 who responded to the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study between 2017 to 2019. The survey helped researchers measure how often kids were exposed to racial discrimination.

One year later, the team measured kids’ BMI and waist circumference and compared them to those measures at baseline.

Overall, kids who reported at least one experience of racial discrimination had higher BMI and larger waist circumference upon follow-up, the researchers said. This trend continued even after adjusting for factors like age, sex, household income, parent education, and nativity status.

These findings add to the growing evidence supporting the weathering hypothesis, which states that experiences of racism and racial discrimination can impact an individual’s health outcomes. The researchers said racial discrimination can be a psychosocial stressor, which could result in higher BMI via biobehavioral pathways, but there is still much to be understood.

“While the mechanisms through which discrimination increases BMI and waist circumference among youths are not yet fully understood, studies have shown that exposure to discrimination can lead to changes in cortisol levels, such as flattened diurnal cortisol slopes and reduced cortisol awakening responses, as well as unhealthy eating habits, sleep problems, and poor mental health in children and adolescents,” they explained.

Of note, these findings are just a small glimpse into how racial discrimination can impact BMI, obesity, and overall well-being. The study took place over a single year, the team said, and does not offer a longitudinal view into how prolonged or chronic exposure to racism can affect health outcomes.

“We tested discrimination at one time point, but it’s important to recognize that prolonged exposure to racial discrimination has the potential to further increase the risk of obesity. Therefore, preventing or at least mitigating the impact of discrimination sooner than later could potentially reduce the risk of obesity,” said Cuevas, who is also a scholar in the Center for Anti-Racism, Social Justice and Public Health at the NYU School of Global Public Health.

 The researchers homed in on the need to address racial discrimination as a social phenomenon to truly achieve health equity and better outcomes.

“It is crucial for researchers, clinicians, educators, and policymakers to join forces with communities to establish evidence-based strategies aimed at preventing exposure to racial discrimination in order to improve obesity at the population level,” Cuevas concluded.

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