A basic understanding of our human stress response is helpful for making sense of the role of weight stigma and other oppressions on our health.
Unfortunately, our stress response system is outdated for our modern lifestyle. It was originally designed for two main purposes, to protect us from physical danger (fight or flight) and to help us survive famine. When our stress response is engaged, our bodies shift energy toward functions like strength, speed and fat storage, and away from functions like digestion, immunity and reproduction. Our neocortex (human) and limbic (mammalian) brain sections, which perform functions like reason, logic, emotion and decision-making, go a bit offline while the “autopilot” reptilian part of the brain takes over to command quick survival strategies. The physical changes, such as high levels of cortisol and adrenaline, are intended to be short-lived. This system is ill-equipped for most of our modern stressors, such as an unexpected bill, challenges with coworkers, or an exam, and can cause harm to our health when “turned on” for long periods of time, such as happens with chronic stress.
The role of oppressions, such as poverty and racism, in triggering chronic stress and causing various diseases is well-documented in the Unnatural Causes video series (Adelman, 2008).
In addition, our bodies cannot distinguish between restricting food to lose weight, a famine situation, and chronic stress – all of which raise cortisol, the driver of metabolic slowing. When the body sends out hunger signals and we do not respond, over time it will slow metabolism and become more efficient at storing fat in order to help us survive these periods of “famine.” This helps to explain the “plateau” and weight regain that the vast majority of those engaging in intentional weight loss experience. As a chronic stressor for those living in larger bodies, weight stigma can lead to both negative health outcomes and additional weight gain (Tomiyama, 2019).
Thanks to Dr. Claire Wheeler for her help in writing this page.