Rutgers Researcher: Stigma of Fat Can Harm Health

Beth Fitzgerald | February 23, 2012 | Health Care
Study examines the biological impact of weight and cell aging

It’s well known that excess weight increases risk for a myriad of maladies, including diabetes, hypertension, heart attack and stroke. Now there are findings by a Rutgers University researcher suggesting that even the social stigma attached to being overweight can harm your health.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama, who joined Rutgers this year as assistant professor of psychology and nutritional sciences, investigated the biological impact of weight stigma as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California-San Francisco. She and four co-authors will present their findings next month in Athens at the annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society.

The study involved extensive interviews with 43 women, all overweight or obese, who all reported some level of weight stigma, ranging from anxiety over how other people judge them, to being denied a job. The women who reported being stigmatized by their weight had elevated levels of the hormone cortisol, which is produced by stress, while those who reported being profoundly stigmatized had elevated oxidative stress, a marker for wear and tear, or aging of the body’s cells.

Tomiyama said the especially interesting finding was that, regardless of the individual’s actual weight, the degree to which they internalized the stigma of being overweight correlated with a higher level of negative cell impact.

“It didn’t matter what their actual weight or bmi (body mass index) was,” Tomiyama said. “It is all about how much you feel it, which I think is a very interesting twist in these findings.”

Tomiyama is a health psychologist who investigates the intersection between eating behavior, psychological stress, and health. Her research partners at UCSF are Elissa Epel, Trissa M. McClatchey, Gina Poelke and Jennifer Daubenmier.

Tomiyama is hoping to publish the research in a medical journal to reach clinicians “and make them aware that these processes might be going on” among their patients.

The study does not prove that weight stigma causes oxidative stress, she said. “This is just a snapshot in time, it’s a correlation study.” More research would need to be done to establish a causal link between weight stigma and cell aging.

“Most stigma studies have focused on how bad it makes someone feel, and have really been in the realm of psychological effects of stigma.” This study, she said, “gives us an indication that it’s not just psychological, but potentially affecting our biology.”

What would she like people to take away from this study?

“Maybe it means that we could pause a moment and be kind to ourselves and others, especially on the basis of weight,” she said. “We say things about overweight people that we would never say about ethnic minorities or people of different sexual orientations. I really feel weight stigma is a final frontier where people can be as un-PC as they like. I’m hoping I’m offering some food for thought that maybe this is actually hurting people in more ways than we think.”

The takeaway for individuals struggling with their weight: Try not to berate yourself, since you may only be compounding the problem.

“We live in a very toxic environment that at every turn is encouraging your body to gain weight,” Tomiyama said. “Sure, there are negative health consequences associated with being overweight — but do we really need to add on top of that the negative consequences due to weight stigma? It’s just salt in the wound.”