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Racial Discrimination Raises Risk for Childhood Obesity

FRIDAY, July 14, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Racial discrimination may drive health inequities from an early age, according to researchers who found that it puts kids at risk for obesity.

“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,” said lead researcher Adolfo Cuevas. He is an assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at the NYU School of Global Public Health in New York City.

Specifically, the new study found that children who experience racial discrimination were more likely to develop a larger waistline and higher body mass index (BMI). BMI is an estimate of body fat based on height and weight.

Black and Hispanic youth have higher rates of obesity, a problem that is a major health issue overall in children and teens in the United States, the study authors noted.

A growing body of research underscores the negative effects of racial discrimination. Among those: It puts people at risk for sleep problems, high levels of the stress hormone cortisol and poor mental health. And it has previously been linked to higher BMI in adults.

For this study, the researchers used data for nearly 6,500 kids aged 9 to 11 years who were participants in a study of adolescent brain development from 2017 to 2019.

These young people were asked whether they were treated unfairly based on their race or ethnicity. BMI and waist size were measured a year later.

Those who had experienced greater racial discrimination had higher BMI and larger waist circumference at that time, the study found. This was true even after adjusting for other factors, such as household income and parents’ level of education.

Reducing exposure to racial discrimination and its detrimental effects on well-being early in life could help limit the risk of weight gain, the study authors suggested.

“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 NYU's Center for Anti-Racism, Social Justice and Public Health.

“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,” he added in a university news release.

The study findings were published online July 11 in JAMA Network Open.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on childhood obesity.

SOURCE: New York University, news release, July 11, 2023

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