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Study suggests discrimination can sometimes lead to obesity


Based on experiences, reaction to food

Experiencing discrimination could lead to increased negative health outcomes including obesity, according to a study published last week.

Researchers found that when people were exposed to discrimination, their appetite was stimulated. The stress caused by discrimination increased cravings of unhealthy foods which in turn led to stress-related weight gain. 

The study, published in Nature Mental Health, featured more than 100 participants who answered a questionnaire about the discrimination they faced in their daily lives. Then, participants were shown images of foods, such as ice cream, fruits and salad, as they underwent brain scans. 

The researchers found that those who experienced high levels of discrimination had a bigger response to seeing unhealthy, high-calorie foods in the reward processing part of the brain, which also helps control motivation. 

The reaction isn’t fully understood, researchers in the study said, but added that what is clear is discrimination affects communication between the brain and gut. 

The people who faced higher levels of discrimination had higher levels of certain compounds that can cause inflammation and oxidative stress, which can damage cells and even DNA. 

“When you’re feeling sad and you’re feeling upset, what do you see on TV — that girl going to grab that tub of ice cream,” Arpana Gupta, an associate professor-in-residence of medicine at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine and senior author of the study, told NBC News.

“It’s interesting that when we’re stressed, we crave these foods. We go for these foods for comfort. What our study was able to do was that it was able to show this at the brain level, as well as the gut level.”

Though the study does not look at racial or ethnic breakdown, it does acknowledge that minorities have disproportionately higher rates of obesity and obesity-related morbidities. 

Nearly 50% of Black Americans are obese, and Black women are more likely than any other group to have the condition, according to the National Black Leadership Commission on Health. 

And obesity can often impact other health conditions, including Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancer. 

But Gupta said there could be solutions, such as working toward a healthier diet, that could help. 

“I don’t think that discrimination is going to go away,” Gupta said. “I don’t think it’s going to go away in my lifetime. I don’t think it’s going to go away in my kid’s lifetime. So, what we need to do in the interim is do other things that can help us cope better with discrimination.”