Reinforcing the mind-over-matter hypothesis, researchers from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health have found that the desire by women to weigh less was a more accurate predictor of poor health than actual body mass index (BMI). Recording the subjects' physically and mentally "unhealthy days" over a month, the researchers also found that the desire to lose weight was more predictive of unhealthy days among Whites than among African-Americans or Hispanics, and among women than among men.
"Our data suggest that some of the obesity epidemic may be partially attributable to social constructs that surround ideal body types," writes researcher Peter Muennig in the American Journal of Public Health. "Younger persons, Whites, and women are disproportionately affected by negative body image concerns, and these groups unduly suffer from BMI-associated morbidity and mortality."
The researchers stress that there is a large body of evidence suggesting that social stress adversely affects mental health as well as physical health. The study notes that there is evidence that discrimination against heavy people is pervasive, occurring in social settings, the workplace, and the home. These processes are likely internalized, speculate the researchers, leading to a negative body image that also may serve as a source of chronic stress. "Our findings confirmed that there was a positive relationship between a person's actual weight and his or her desired weight and health, be it physical or mental," observed Dr. Muennig.
"The data add support to our hypothesis that the psychological stress that accompanies a negative body image explains some of the morbidity commonly associated with being obese. Our finding that the desire to lose weight was a much stronger predictor of unhealthy days than was BMI further suggests that perceived difference plays a greater role in generating disease," concluded Dr. Muennig.
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Source: Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health