Racial and Ethnic Stereotypes May Contribute to Obesity Among Hispanics

adults-obese-largeMaintaining a healthy weight can be much harder for Hispanics than for their white counterparts, according researchers at Rutgers University-Newark.

Minorities in the U.S. are often confronted with negative stereotypes and messages that suggest those groups are inferior. These attitudes can prevent people from doing what is needed to care for their health.

“When you are exposed to negative stereotypes, you may gravitate more toward unhealthy foods as opposed to healthy foods,” explains lead author and social psychologist Luis Rivera. The study appears in this summer’s edition of the Journal of Social Issues. Rivera was also a co-editor of the publication. “You may have a less positive attitude toward watching your carbs or cutting back on fast food, and toward working out and exercising.”

He says the resulting difference in motivation may help explain – at least in part – higher rates of obesity in the United States among members of minority groups than among whites.

Hispanics in the study who strongly self-stereotyped were more than three times as likely to be overweight or obese as those who did not. The data suggest that self-stereotypes diminish self-esteem – and therefore the motivation that might have helped them follow a healthier lifestyle.

Demeaning stereotypes come from many sources. For example, television and other mass media frequently carry harmful messages, such as Latinos are lazy or Latinos are unintelligent. “And then,” Rivera adds, “there are more subtle ways in conversations and interactions with others.”

There is some evidence that Latinos born in this country tend to have a poorer self-image than many recent Hispanic immigrants – suggesting that stereotypes ingrained in U.S. culture are especially potent – and that the design of his research reinforces that view, he said.

Aside from ethnicity, study participants were nearly identical. They lived in the same neighborhood, had comparable incomes, had similar access to healthy foods and were asked the same questions – additional evidence that if the whites and the Latinos saw themselves differently, society’s prejudice against Latinos was the underlying reason, he said.

So how does a person discouraged by stereotypes overcome them? According to Rivera, research suggests that exposure to positive racial and ethnic role models might help. Something else worth trying, he said, could be designing approaches to weight loss that emphasize the person’s positive qualities – as a way to counteract the corrosive effects of prejudice.

“It has been shown that when you remind people what they’re good at, it works to immunize them from the effect of stereotypes,” Rivera said. “It releases their anxieties and allows them to focus on the task before them and perform to their ability.”