Obesity discrimination has major impact on quality of life

Cancer Research UK

Cancer Research UK scientists at UCL have found that weight discrimination is linked to significantly lower quality of life, and accounts for approximately 40 per cent of the negative psychological effects associated with obesity in older people, according to research published today in Obesity.

“Obesity is linked to the development of several cancer types so it’s crucial that people are supported and respected to help them lose weight, and cut this risk." - Professor Jane Wardle, director of the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Centre at UCL

Obesity is linked to higher risks of cancer, including bowel, womb, oesophageal and pancreatic cancers, as well as a range of other health conditions. It is thought that more than one in 20 cancers in the UK are linked to being overweight or obese.

The team analysed data from 5,056 English adults over the age of 50. They found that those who felt they had been discriminated against because of  their weight had an increase in symptoms of depression, a drop in quality of life and lower life satisfaction relative to those who did not perceive weight discrimination.

Participants were asked whether they experienced day-to-day discrimination that they attributed to their weight. Examples of discrimination include being treated disrespectfully, receiving poor service in shops, and being harassed*. Psychological wellbeing was assessed based on quality of life, life satisfaction and symptoms of depression.

Senior author Professor Jane Wardle, director of the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Centre at UCL, said: ““Obesity is linked to the development of several cancer types so it’s crucial that people are supported and respected to help them lose weight, and cut this risk.

“Our important research confirms humiliating people about their weight is part of the obesity problem – not the solution – building on our earlier work showing that weight discrimination doesn’t encourage weight loss.

“There’s evidence that people are picked on about their weight by the general public as well as health professionals and many obese patients report being treated disrespectfully, including by doctors. Everyone should stop blaming and shaming people for their weight, and offer support, and, where appropriate, treatment.”

The data comes from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), a study of adults aged 50 or older. The researchers analysed the results to check whether the known association between obesity and poorer psychological wellbeing could in any part be explained by weight-related discrimination. They found that when perceived weight discrimination was accounted for, differences in wellbeing between obese and non-obese individuals were reduced substantially, suggesting that discrimination may be an important cause of low wellbeing for obese people.

Lead author Dr Sarah Jackson, from the UCL department of epidemiology and public health, said: “In the United Kingdom, the Equality Act 2010 legally protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of age, sex, race, disability, religion or beliefs, sexual orientation, marital status, pregnancy, or gender reassignment; making it clear that discriminatory behaviour of this nature is not to be accepted.”

“Our results indicate that discriminatory experiences contribute to poorer psychological wellbeing in individuals with obesity.”


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Jackson et al. Obesity, perceived weight discrimination, and psychological wellbeing in older adults in England. Obesity. DOI: 10.1002/oby.21052

Notes to Editor

*Authors’ description of discrimination survey: Participants were asked how often they encounter five discriminatory situations: ‘In your day-to-day life, how often have any of the following things happened to you:

1) you are treated with less respect or courtesy;

2) you receive poorer service than other people in restaurants and stores;

3) people act as if they think you are not clever;

4) you are threatened or harassed;

5) you receive poorer service or treatment than other people from doctors or hospitals.

Responses ranged from ‘never’ to ‘almost every day’.  Because data were highly skewed, with most participants reporting never experiencing discrimination, we dichotomised responses to indicate whether or not respondents had ever experienced discrimination in any domain (never vs. all other options).  Participants who reported discrimination in any of the situations were asked to indicate the reason(s) they attributed their experience to from a list of options including weight, age, gender, and race.  We considered participants who attributed experiences of discrimination to their weight as cases of perceived weight discrimination.