Some research shows that people who are subjected to racial and ethnic discrimination more often are at higher risk of obesity and other conditions. These risks can even start to manifest in childhood.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity is a serious public health problem in the United States. It affects more than 4 in 10 American adults. Black and Hispanic adult populations are more likely to be obese.
Another research study focused on a known stressor – racial and ethnic discrimination – which increases the risk of mental illness, sleep issues, and physical problems such as heart disease (CVD) and inflammation.
Discrimination is also linked to a higher BMI, waist circumference, and obesity rates — among adults and young people.
This link between obesity and stress may be due in part to the way that discrimination changes the way people’s brains interpret food cues and interferes with the communication between the gut bacteria and the brain.
The gut microbiome – a collection of bacteria and microbes that live in the intestines – can play a significant role in mental health and health. Source. It may also affect behavior.
In a press release, Arpana Gupta said that brain-gut communication may change as a result of ongoing discrimination. This can affect food choices, cravings, and brain function. It also contributes to changes in gut chemistry, which have been linked to stress and inflammation.
Discrimination can cause stress eating.
The study was published in Nature Mental HealthTrustedSource on October 2. It included 107 participants — 87 men and 20 women — from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds.
Participants filled out a questionnaire to measure their chronic experiences with unfair treatment. Researchers divided the participants into two groups based on their answers: “high discrimination” and “low” discrimination.
The scans were done while the participants completed a food-cue task, which involved looking at four pictures of different foods — two healthy ones and two unhealthy ones — as well as a non-food image for comparison.
Researchers also collected a sample of stools from the participants to determine changes in 12 glutamate breakdown products or metabolites.
Glutamate, a neurotransmitter, is linked to inflammation and conditions like anxiety or depression. The research also indicates that glutamate is related to the brain’s reward systems and behaviors, such as impulsivity.
In response to food cues that are unhealthy, people who have experienced more discrimination have greater brain activation. The brain regions that are activated are associated with reward processing, motivation, and cravings.
Discrimination-related stress was also associated with changes in brain responses involved in self-regulation — this occurred only with cues for unhealthy foods, not for healthy foods.
The results also showed that unhealthy sweet foods were involved in altering the two-way communication of the brain with the gut microbiome.
Researchers claim that this new study, as well as earlier research, suggests that racial and ethnic discrimination can lead to changes between the brain microbiome and the gut. This may shift people towards unhealthy eating habits.
Gupta stated in the press release that “it appears that as a response to stressful experiences of discrimination, we seek comfort through food. This manifests as an increased desire for high-calorie foods, and especially sweet foods.”
She added, “These changes may make people who are discriminated against more susceptible to obesity and obesity related disorders.”
How discrimination affects health
Rebecca Hasson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Movement Science and Director of the Childhood Disparities Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology, emphasized that discrimination was one form of toxic stress that has been known to impact health negatively.
Discrimination can also take many forms based on race or ethnicity, weight, gender, or any other social identity.
She told Healthline that “discrimination” is a toxic stressor that can lead to both psychological and physical changes in the body. This leads to many diseases.
She said that studies like this one, which focuses on racial bias, “provide further evidence that it is a serious stressor to which we should pay attention.”
She and her co-authors found in a paper that was published this month by Psychology that teens who were subjected to racial prejudice from their peers had unhealthily high levels of the stress hormone cortisol during the day.
Adolfo Cuevas is a Ph.D. assistant professor of social sciences and behavioral sciences at the NYU School of Global Public Health. He said that the new study provides some understanding of the connections between experiences of discrimination and obesity.
He told Healthline that “studies [such as these] show us that discrimination can have a real impact upon our physiology, and increase the risk of diseases.” This is not just a mental thing.
He said that “in fact, these experiences have been embodied and contribute to poor health outcomes for a large number of Americans and a short life expectancy,”
Cuevas’ research and that of his colleagues showed that greater racial bias in children and adolescents was associated with a higher BMI and waist circumference.
Cuevas said that while the study’s results were published in JAMA Network, OpenTrusted Source earlier this year, they showed that discrimination had a small effect. However, the study only looked at a snapshot of the lives of the children.
He said that these experiences of discrimination do not happen only once. “This happens over and over again, at a crucial period in the lives of these children.”
Cuevas says that the effects of discrimination increase as children grow older, and this has huge implications for public health. He said, “We must find social and psychological resources to mitigate this.”
He added that “clinicians, teachers, principals and even students can work together in order to create a better understanding of the different cultures within our school system” to reduce discrimination.
Hasson stated that children, teenagers, and adults do not have to be exposed much to racial prejudice to be negatively affected by it.
She said, “So how can we help them build resilience or develop coping skills?”
She said that some research has shown that exercise can help to buffer the stress response. This means you will have a lower cortisol reaction when you are faced with a stressful situation.
She said that exercise can also be used as a coping mechanism to help people deal with discrimination or rebalance the system.
Social relationships and support networks can be built through physical activity.
Hasson said, “Gir, trek is a great example, as it uses physical activity to help African American woman cope with stress related to race.”
Gupta stated in the press release that the results from the new study could help researchers develop treatments that target the brain or the gut to reduce the effects of stress and discrimination.
Cuevas warns, however, that it is not the responsibility of the discrimination victims to reduce the impact of these stressors.
He said, “We need to start thinking about how we can change the social structures in order to reduce children’s risk of discrimination as well as obesity.”
Hasson agreed that it is important for individuals to learn how to cope with stressors. However, she stressed that policy solutions were needed to prevent exposure to stressors.
She asked, for example, how we can create safe environments through policies to encourage positive relationships and help people recognize the humanity in every person.
Black and Hispanic adults and youth are more likely to be obese. According to a new study, racial prejudice may be contributing to health disparities by disrupting communication between the brain microbiome and the gut.
People who had higher levels of exposure to racial bias showed greater activation of certain brain areas in response to images of unhealthy food. The brain activity of people who reported more increased exposure to racial discrimination was also lower in response to images of unhealthy foods.
Exercise programs, other interventions, and other approaches may help people deal with racism and reduce negative health effects. Experts say that policy changes are necessary to prevent discrimination from occurring in the first instance.