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Racial Discrimination may be Risk Factor for Obesity in Children, Suggests New Research


Children and adolescents who reported facing more racial discrimination had a higher BMI and waist circumference, according to new data.



Children who experience racial discrimination are more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference, according to new data published in JAMA Network Open.1

“These findings suggest that personally mediated racial discrimination may be a risk factor for developing obesity in children and adolescents, above and beyond socioeconomic status,” wrote lead author Adolfo Cuevas, PhD, assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences, New York University School of Public Health, and colleagues.1

Childhood obesity is a critical public health issue in the US and is disproportionately prevalent among children from minority racial and ethnic groups, said Cuevas and colleagues.1

Racial discrimination is a known stressor that has been shown to be associated with higher BMI in adults, “but little is known about the association of racial discrimination and childhood and adolescent adiposity,” wrote researchers.1

Investigators conducted the current study to examine the prospective association between self-reported experiences of racial discrimination and adiposity (BMI and waist circumference) in a racially diverse sample of children aged between 9 and 11 years.1

Cuevas and coworkers used participant data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study. The ABCD study was designed to examine brain development and associations of various individual, social, and familial variables on health outcomes in a diverse population of youth at 21 sites in the US.1

To assess interpersonal racial discrimination, researchers used the child-reported Perceived Discrimination Scale. The scale included 3 questions regarding how frequently participants were treated unfairly or negatively by peers, teachers, and other adults, and 4 questions about their feelings of unacceptance by society due to their race or ethnicity. A higher score indicated greater racial discrimination.1

In addition, trained research assistants measured weight, height, and waist circumference; BMI z scores were calculated using the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s age and sex-specific reference standards for children. Researchers assessed these measurements from time 1 (ie, 2017-2019) and time 2 (ie, 2018-2020).1

The current study included 6463 children (mean age, 9.95 years; 47.8% girls) who took part in the ABCD study, of whom 59.7% identified as White, 18.1% as Hispanic or Latino, 10.5% as Black, 8.6% as multiracial, 2.3% as Asian or Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, 0.3% as Native American or American Indian, and 0.5% as other race.Overall, 62.1% of participants had a healthy weight, 19.5% had overweight, 11.3% had obesity, and 7.1% were underweight at baseline.1


In the unadjusted model, investigators observed that greater exposure to racial discrimination at time 1 was associated with a higher BMI (β 0.05, 95% CI 0.02-0.08) as well as a higher waist circumference (β 0.35, 95% CI 0.15-0.54) at time 2. Even after adjusting for covariates (ie, age, sex, household income, parent education and nativity status), racial discrimination was positively associated with BMI (0.04, 95% CI 0.01-0.08) and waist circumference (β 0.24, 95% CI 0.04-0.44), according to the results.1

“We tested discrimination at one time point, but it’s important to recognize that prolonged exposure to racial discrimination has the potential to further increase the risk of obesity,” said Cuevas in an NYU press release. “Therefore, preventing or at least mitigating the impact of discrimination sooner than later could potentially reduce the risk of obesity.”2

“It is crucial for researchers, clinicians, educators, and policymakers to join forces with communities to establish evidence-based strategies aimed at preventing exposure to racial discrimination in order to improve obesity at the population level,” added Cuevas.2


  1. Cuevas AG, Krobath DM, Rhodes-Bratton B, et al. Association of racial discrimination with adiposity in children and adolescents. JAMA Netw Open. 2023;6:e2322839. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.22839
  2. Racial Discrimination Increases Risk for Childhood Obesity. NYU. Published July 11, 2023. Accessed July 12, 2023. https://www.nyu.edu/about/news-publications/news/2023/july/racial-discrimination-childhood-obesity.html

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