Racial Prejudice of Adolescents Increases Risk of Obesity

Future BMI and waist measurements are likely more significant and broader among children who have experienced racial prejudice.

The results, published in JAMA Network Open, show that, in addition to other socioeconomic factors like family income, racial prejudice may be a risk factor for adolescents becoming obese.

In the United States, approximately 14.7 million children and adolescents were considered obese from 2017 to 2020. Childhood obesity is a significant issue that puts kids and teenagers at risk for health problems, and the frequency of obesity among kids and teenagers is still too high.

"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," says lead author Adolfo Cuevas.

An increasing body of studies shows that racial discrimination, a recognized stressor, increases people's risk for various health problems, including sleep disorders, elevated cortisol levels, and poor mental health.

Although racial prejudice has been associated with greater BMI in adults, less is known about how it affects kids and teenagers. The researchers analyzed data from 6,463 9 to 11-year-old participants in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study from 2017 to 2019.

By asking young people to consider if they had ever experienced unjust treatment because of their race or ethnicity, they could gauge their exposure to racial prejudice. They assessed the subjects' waist circumference and BMI, which were computed using their weight and height a year later.

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.

- Cueves

Even after controlling for well-known socioeconomic risk variables for obesity, such as family income and parental education levels, the researchers discovered that children who experienced more racial prejudice had higher BMIs and wider waist circumferences a year later.

The team gathers that limiting early-life exposure to racial discrimination and its adverse impacts on well-being may help reduce the likelihood of weight gain across the lifespan.

Cuevas concludes: "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."

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