Recent research has shown that young people who are subjected to weight stigma — discrimination or teasing regarding their weight — are more likely to experience social isolation, depressive symptoms, engage in self-harm behaviors and be at risk for engaging in disordered eating. But studies investigating the link between weight stigma and disordered eating have looked mainly at white and middle- to high-socioeconomic demographic populations, which means researchers can’t be sure the results apply to other groups.
To find out, University of Minnesota School of Public Health researchers recently studied the relationship between weight teasing and disordered eating in an ethnically/racially and socioeconomically diverse sample of young people. The study was led by Ph.D. student Laura Hooper and published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.
Hooper and the researchers examined data from a group of more than 1,500 young people participating in the Project EAT 2010-2018 study. Project EAT is a long-running study led by Professor Dianne Neumark-Sztainer tracking the general health and well-being of adolescents as they age into adulthood.
This study found that:
- experiencing weight teasing was strongly associated with disordered eating behaviors in both adolescents and young adults;
- experiencing weight teasing during adolescence was associated with initiation of dieting and higher prevalence of dieting and overeating eight years later;
- weight teasing and disordered eating were more prevalent among young people of color and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds;
- the connection between weight teasing and disordered eating was similar across ethnic/racial and socioeconomic demographic groups.
“Our findings add to the growing evidence that weight-based mistreatment is not helpful and is often harmful to the health of young people,” said Hooper. “This study provides evidence against persistent assumptions that weight teasing and disordered eating primarily affect affluent, white young people.”
Hooper said that future research and policy work should address weight stigma and prioritize the needs of young people of color and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. She added that developing policies to protect young people from weight-based mistreatment (e.g., legal protections and anti-bullying policies in schools) should include input from young people with these backgrounds.
The study was funded by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.