Racism linked with obesity in children

July 12, 2023 – Children who face racial discrimination are more likely to have obesity, according to a new study.

Published July 11 in JAMA Network Open, the study looked at obesity rates among more than 6,000 children between the ages of 9 and 11. Rates were highest among children identifying as Black (24%), followed by those identifying as Native American or Alaska native (21%), Hispanic (18%), Asian American (9%), and white (7%).

Children were asked about their exposure to racism in an initial interview between 2017 and 2019. Those who reported higher levels of racial discrimination were more likely a year later to have a high body mass index. The children said that the people most likely to treat them unfairly because of their race or ethnicity were teachers, other children at school, and adults outside of school.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s David Williams, who was not involved in the study, said in a July 11 USA Today article that much research has shown that racism can harm health. “What we have discovered over the years is that discrimination is a type of stressful life experience that has negative effects on health just like other types of stressful life experiences,” said Williams, Florence Sprague Norman and Laura Smart Norman Professor of Public Health. “It leads to worse mental health and physical health.”

He added that the study shows that people’s behavior can have dangerous consequences. “We can be an agent of disease and death just by how we treat others,” he said. “The most important thing we need to do is reduce the occurrence of discrimination.”

Natalie Slopen, assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences, was a co-author of the study.

Read the USA Today article: A catalyst for childhood obesity: How racism has ‘huge implications’ for health trajectory

Read the study: Association of Racial Discrimination With Adiposity in Children and Adolescents

Learn more

Stress of racism can affect health across generations (Harvard Chan School news)

How racism chips away at health (Harvard Chan School news)