·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary

Health & Medicine

Studies Show Racial Discrimination Can Fuel Childhood Obesity

— August 8, 2023

Children who reported greater racial discrimination had higher BMI, according to new research.

A study led by Adolfo Cuevas, an assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at the NYU School of Global Public Health, has revealed that exposure to racial discrimination puts young individuals at greater risk of developing childhood obesity, with Black and Hispanic youth being particularly affected.

The study utilized data from approximately 6,500 children aged 9 to 11 years who participated in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study from 2017 to 2019. Participants were asked about experiences of racial discrimination, and a year later, their body mass index (BMI) and waist size were measured. The findings were clear: Children who reported greater racial discrimination had higher BMI and larger waist circumference. These associations remained even after adjusting for other factors such as household income and parental education levels.

Obesity, defined as a chronic condition resulting in a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher, can result in a much higher risk for dangerous diseases and conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, some cancers, sleep apnea, and much more. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Obesity in childhood is associated with a wide range of serious health complications and an increased risk of premature onset of related illnesses. Studies have found that without intervention, children and adolescents with obesity will likely continue to be obese into adulthood.”

Discrimination is often seen as a major cause of lost opportunities, and consequently, many federal and state regulations provide protections against discrimination to ensure equal opportunities for all. Obesity is not used as a determinate for protected classes and yet does affect opportunity. A high BMI not only affects physical health but can also have detrimental effects on a person’s educational, employment, and social opportunities.

Studies Show Racial Discrimination Can Fuel Childhood Obesity
Photo RDNE Stock project from Pexels

Obese children may face discrimination and stigmatization, which can lead to lower self-esteem and academic achievement. Studies have shown that being overweight is associated with increased school absences and lower educational attainment, limiting future career prospects. In the workplace, obesity may lead to discrimination during hiring processes and can also result in lower wages and fewer opportunities for advancement. Additionally, social isolation and decreased participation in physical activities due to weight-related issues can hinder healthy social development and overall quality of life. Compounding discrimination on top of obesity is a terrible challenge for children.

Childhood obesity rates in the United States vary significantly across states and are influenced by a combination of factors, including economic status, urban or rural location, and cultural norms. Generally, states with higher poverty rates tend to have higher rates of childhood obesity. For example, states in the Southern region, such as Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, consistently report higher childhood obesity rates compared to the national average. These states also have higher rates of poverty, which may contribute to limited access to healthy food options and opportunities for physical activity. On the other hand, states with lower poverty rates and more robust healthcare systems, like Vermont, Utah, and Colorado, tend to have lower childhood obesity rates.

Additionally, urban areas may experience higher rates of childhood obesity due to factors such as food deserts, limited outdoor spaces for physical activity, and the prevalence of sedentary behaviors. In contrast, rural areas may face challenges in accessing healthcare and resources, impacting childhood obesity rates as well. A study by Dr. Adekunle Sanyaolu, PhD found several factors contributing to obesity including psychological, lifestyle, and environmental factors among others.

Addressing childhood obesity, especially among Black and Hispanic youth, requires a multifaceted and community-oriented approach. Reducing exposure to racial discrimination and promoting equitable access to education, employment, and healthcare are essential steps in combating disparities.


World Health Organization: Obesity

Childhood obesity and school absenteeism: a systematic review and meta-analysis 

Putting life on hold: lived experiences of people with obesity

Childhood and Adolescent Obesity in the United States: A Public Health Concern

Join the conversation!