Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Wow, racism does that?

If you go here: http://www.boston.com/news/health/blog/2009/05/experience_of_r.html

you'll find at bostom.com, in a regular feature "White Coat Notes: News from the Boston-area Medical Community," an article entitled "Perceived racism linked to weight gain, researchers say."

Hooo boy! As author Frances Kendall once said to me, "Everybody who touches that subject gets burned."

But, fools rush in...

Perceptions of racism -- from being treated with suspicion in a store to unfairness in employment or housing -- can heighten stress levels and affect health, research has shown. A new study from Boston University links these smoldering signs of racism to weight gain in black women, suggesting a possible explanation for the their higher obesity rates compared to white women.

Yvette Cozier, an epidemiologist at the Slone Epidemiology Center at BU, led a survey of more than 43,000 women enrolled in the long-running Black Women's Health Study. Writing in the June issue of Annals of Epidemiology, she and her co-authors describe participants' reports on their weight, body mass index, and perceptions of racism.

OK, research design looks OK at first glance. Though you're treading on shaky ground when using self-description of emotional states, as every competent researcher knows. The sample size certainly seems more than adequate.

At the beginning of the eight-year study, the women were asked if they sometimes felt they were treated poorly in a restaurant or store, whether they thought people considered them dishonest or less intelligent, and if they had felt unfairness on the job, in housing, or from police. The women, 21 to 69 years old at the study's outset, were placed in four groups based on how frequently they said they experienced these signs of racism. Their weight was recorded every two years from 1997 through 2005. Their waist circumference was measured at the beginning and end.

At the end of the trial, all the women had gained weight. But the women who said they felt higher levels of racism gained more weight and had bigger waist-size increases compared to the women who felt the least racism. That held true after accounting for factors such as education, geographic region, and beginning body mass index.

OK, the second variable is something that can be objectively measured and compared to the emotional states, and the extraneous variables seem to have been controlled for.

Now the conclusion:

"Racism is real and it has real effects," Cozier said in an interview. "It can result in real changes in the body."

"Racism is real..." no kidding? I thought it was a myth.

"...it has real effects." Well, I guess being insulted, assaulted, robbed, lynched or whatever are real enough to suit anyone's standards.

"It can result in real changes in the body."

Yep, getting shot or having the stuffings beat out of you results in some pretty real changes.

I'm sorry, I shouldn't mock the good doctor without knowing more about her. She isn't necessarily a public speaker, may have been quoted out of context, or may just have been searching for a rhetorical trope to introduce her conclusions with.

That particular trope may have a formal name in rhetoric. Where I come from we call it, "the triumphant discovery of the obvious."

Higher stress changes hormone levels that influence food choices and where in the body fat is stored, the authors write. That makes an association between the stress of racism and weight gain, particularly around the waist, fit with other research in humans and animals, they say.

This is doctor-speak for pure speculation. What they dare not speak about is the established fact that people of different races store fat differently, apparently due to climatological adaptations. This may or may not be relevant - but it seems relevant that it wasn't even included in the discussion.

Cozier said she was interested in learning whether there was another reason beyond diet and exercise that could explain why black women tend to be heavier than white women. Her study did not include white women, so a direct comparison is not possible, she said, but the unique experience of racism appears to be a potential contributor to the difference.

"Her study did not include white women..." so she thinks the controlling variable is racial discrimination, and didn't examine a control group which presumably doesn't experience it?

Folks, I haven't read the full article, published in the 'Annals of Epidemiology' (and when the heck did overweight become an epidemic?) but this looks an awful lot like shopping for research results to support your conclusion.

What seems to me a far more defensible speculation (I won't say conclusion, since the study was not designed to test this) is that weight gain has a lot to do with how far you think you're in control of your life, versus how much you think it's controlled by external factors you have no control over - such as other people's attitudes.

Weight control is by far the simplest physical problem to prescribe for. (In the vast majority of circumstances, I know there are medical conditions that complicate it.) And it's quite possibly the most difficult prescription to carry out.

You eat more than you burn, you gain. You burn more than you eat, you lose. Period.

I.e. there is no "beyond diet and exercise." That's not even medicine, it's physics.

And yes, I'm acutely aware that it's easier said than done. A lot of things are. Everyone who's ever tried to quit smoking knows that.

I'll also add that the researcher didn't even touch upon another well-known observation. Body image problems seem to be a White girl thing in this country. Anorexia and bulemia seem to be confined pretty exclusively to white teens and 20-somethings.

The brightest spot in all of this is, the comments section.

The first 11 out of 110:

Couldn't an underlying insecurity lead to both weight gain and higher sensitivity to apparent slights? How is the causality demonstrated here?

Posted by pg May 26, 09 07:24 PM Obviously racism hasn't gone away - your study proves it - you are a racist!

Posted by Don Johnson May 26, 09 07:58 PM Come on. Of all the stories I've read today this has got to be the most outrageous. Honestly, some people are going to try and use every trick in the book to blame their bad habits, whether it be eating, drinking, smoking whatever on someone or something else.

It seems that no one is accountable anymore for their actions in this country. Let's see, why don't we blame the recession on "blue eyed white males" which the president of Brazil recently did.

Posted by Jim May 26, 09 07:59 PM If McCain were president, George Bush would be linked to weight gain.

Posted by lol May 26, 09 08:08 PM It is clear, very clear, that social experiences of discrimination against lead to pernicious hormonal and behavioral changes. It is not just a matter of habits, there are social and structural determinants of health. People under stress do not have the same chance of controlling themselves when eating. If they are under acute stress, the corticotropin hormone makes them to eat less. Right after the acute stress, the corticoids are still high and the corticotropin low and they eat a lot. That is well known. The weakness of this study is the utilization of perception of discrimination against as a measure of racism. I do not know how well correlated are other measures of racism with perception of racism. I also do not know what other measures of racism are reliable.

Posted by John Smith May 26, 09 08:21 PM I don't know whether to laugh or cry. This is, quite possibly, the most asinine thing I've ever read.

Posted by urkiddinme May 26, 09 08:24 PM I have felt all the the feelings associated with the discriminatory practices listed above. If you want to discuss a problem, let's discuss self-esteem and the effects of being a woman, especially an aging woman, in this society. Let's do a study on that and see what results we get! That said, everyone has felt rejected and has been treated unfairly: male, female, black white, Asian, Hispanic, Christian, Jew, young old, etc. Yes, there is discrimination in this world and it is not restricted to black women.

Something else to consider is that just maybe the store clerk, policeman, waitress

or other perpetrator of "discriminatory" behavior was just having a bad day and took it out on thew closest person. It happens to me all the time and I'm not a black woman.

Posted by Kathie May 26, 09 08:28 PM Jim,
I was going to write something, but you covered it all.

Posted by Joe May 26, 09 08:30 PM I had to make sure I hadn't inadvertently gone to The Onion after seeing this headline

Posted by Jack May 26, 09 08:33 PM One who suffers feelings of inferiority regardless of race or ethnic background, is more likely to eat unhealthy comfort food. I agree with the commenters above. This is a ridiculous correlation. Pray tell, who funded this foolish study?

Posted by Noname49 May 26, 09 08:49 PM Wow. Low self-esteem due to racism causes obesity. How 'bout we just say low self-esteem = bad self image. Hmmmm. Duh. Next up... candy is sweet. Also, this just in, people that yell have sore throats. How about, 'People who are constantly put down have a tendency to snap?' Ooooh. Does someone actually pay money for studies like this?

Thank God! Maybe the lunatics haven't quite taken over the asylum quite yet.

Note: When I was copy editing for the Polish Academy of Science Annual Review, I got a paper that measured fat gain in Polish women, correlated with the education level of their husbands. The study found that women's tendency to stay slim correlated with higher levels of education of their husbands.

Note: Other posts about racism can be found here. So if you're going to write in and call me a racist - read the damn things first.





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