August 29, 2014
By Hope Gillette
Psychology may help explain some of the disparity when it comes to Hispanics, non-Hispanic whites and obesity. According to the Office of Minority Health, Hispanics are 1.2 times more likely to be obese compared to non-Hispanic whites, but experts say some of this has to do with the psychological impact of stereotypes.
Dr. Luis Rivera, an experimental social psychologist at Rutgers University-Newark, recently headed up a research project looking at the impact negative stereotypes had on minorities when it came to obesity.
Over the last few years it has become well-known that certain minorities, like Hispanics, have higher rates of obesity due to cultural and socioeconomic issues, among other things.
This “common knowledge” may have served to increase awareness of the minority obesity issue, but it may also be contributing to the problem on a psychological level. Hispanics who know they are in a group more predisposed to obesity are more likely to feel they can’t be at a healthy weight no matter how much effort they put toward that goal.
“When you are exposed to negative stereotypes, you may gravitate more toward unhealthy foods as opposed to healthy foods,” said Rivera in a press release. “You may have a less positive attitude toward watching your carbs or cutting back on fast food, and toward working out and exercising.”
The research team found Hispanics were more likely to identify themselves with negative stereotypes than were non-Hispanic whites. This meant Hispanics who heard negative stereotypical descriptions were more likely to agree those descriptions fit them personally: “I am Hispanic, therefore I am overweight.”
Hispanics with this mindset were more than 3 times as likely to actually be overweight or obese compared to Hispanics who did not buy into common stereotype descriptions.
Rivera explained negative stereotypical information–even if true–can have a lasting impact on self-esteem, thus making individuals less likely to want to try and live a healthier lifestyle. While the media certainly is a big contributor to the issue, experts indicate stereotypical opinions can come from sources closer to Hispanics.
“And then,” Rivera adds, “there are more subtle ways in conversations and interactions with others. Although people don’t say explicitly ‘you are A, you are B,’ there are ways in which those messages are communicated. It could be teachers. It could be your parents. It could be your friends.”
The negative stereotypes regarding obesity in the United States are so prevalent, explained experts, there is clear evidence indicating Hispanics born in the U.S. have significantly lower self-esteem compared to those recently immigrated.
To combat the issue, Rivera believes a more positive approach should be taken when looking at weight loss. Instead of focusing on the hurdles Hispanic individuals may face, creating custom programs based on positive Hispanic characteristics can help boost self-esteem rather than tear it down.
“It has been shown that when you remind people what they’re good at, it works to immunize them from the effect of stereotypes,” he said. “It releases their anxieties and allows them to focus on the task before them and perform to their ability.”