Perceived weight discrimination and chronic biochemical stress: A population-based study using cortisol in scalp hair.

Authors:  Sarah Jackson , Clemens Kirschbaum and Andrew Steptoe
Type: Journal article
Publication date: December 2016
Published in:  Obesity No. 24(12), pp. 2515-2521
DOI: 10.1002/oby.21657



There is increasing evidence for weight-based discrimination against persons with obesity. This study aimed to examine the physiological impact of perceived weight discrimination on cortisol in hair, an indicator of chronic stress exposure.


Data were from 563 nonsmoking individuals with obesity (body mass index, BMI ≥30 kg/m2 ) participating in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Experiences of discrimination were reported via questionnaire, and hair cortisol concentrations were determined from the scalp-nearest 2-cm hair segment. Height and weight were objectively measured. ANCOVAs tested associations between perceived weight discrimination and hair cortisol concentration overall and by degree of obesity. All analyses were adjusted for age, sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and BMI.


Mean hair cortisol concentrations were 33% higher in those who had experienced weight discrimination than those who had not (mean log pg/mg 1.241 vs. 0.933, F = 12.01, P = 0.001). The association between weight discrimination and hair cortisol was particularly pronounced in individuals with severe (class II/III) obesity (1.402 vs. 0.972, F = 11.58, P = 0.001).


Weight discrimination is associated with the experience of stress at a biological level. Chronic exposure to elevated levels of cortisol may play a role in generating a vicious circle of weight gain and discrimination and contribute to obesity-associated health conditions.

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