Researchers are calling for sexual identity to be considered in medical assessments. A new study shows lesbian and bisexual women are more at risk of being overweight or obese compared to straight women.
But research also found that gay men are less likely to be overweight than straight men or are more underweight.
Dr Joanna Semlyen from the Medical School at the University of East Anglia’s (UEA) Norwich campus headed up the research alongside the University College London (UCL).
She told Gay Star News it was important to carry out the research to discover ‘health inequalities’ among difference populations.
‘It’s important when we’re developing health policy such as interventions (preventions) that we understand who our populations are,’ Semlyen said.
BMI and sexuality
Published in the Journal of Public Health it was the first to investigate the relationship between sexual orientation and body mass index (BMI) in the UK. Researchers pooled data from 12 UK national health surveys involving 93,429 participants.
Semlyen wanted to explain that being lesbian or bisexual did not predispose people to becoming overweight. Not much research has been done on the ‘causal link’ between sexuality and weight. But there is some evidence to suggest the risk of being overweight could be because of heternormative and homophobic medical practices.
‘This can result in inequalities in access to care and a potential increase in stress as a result of living in a society that is prejudiced to their identity,’ Semlyen said.
She argued it was important to do something about this risk because being overweight can lead to other risk factors such as, coronary heart disease, stroke, cancer and early death.
‘There are a number of possible explanations for these findings. We know that sexual minority groups are more likely to be exposed to psychosocial stressors, which impacts on their mental health and their health behaviours such as smoking and alcohol use and which may influence their health behaviours such as diet or physical activity,’ Semlyen said.
Why is there a difference between gay men and women?
The differences in results between men and women there was a relationship between sexual identity and BMI. The study also showed the link manifested differently between men and women.
Gay men tended to be less overweight than straight men. But many gay men were also more underweight than their straight counterparts.
‘There is growing evidence that being underweight is linked to a range of health problems too, including excess deaths,’ Semlyen said.
No research existed to explain why gay men might be more underweight. But Semlyen theorized it could be because of the different genders reacted to differently to societal discrimination.
‘One can only hypothesize if one understands this is from the experience in minority stress and it’s manifesting differently in men and women,’ she said.
‘Possibly in terms of actual behaviors in experiencing this stress there is a different kind of coping behavior.
‘And because there is a heteronormative standard of body image, perhaps gay men are under pressure to have a particular body type and that may be in relation to them being more underweight.’
What happens next?
Semlyen explained why there was a lack of research on the relationship between sexuality and weight.
‘Until 2008, sexual orientation wasn’t recorded in health surveys. This means that until recently it has not been possible to determine health inequalities affecting lesbian, gay and bisexual people,’ she said.
‘We hope that policy makers and clinicians will be able to use this fresh evidence to provide better healthcare and tailored advice and interventions for lesbian, gay and bisexual people.
‘We need longitudinal research to understand the factors underlying the relationship between sexual orientation and BMI, and research to understand more about being underweight, especially in this population.’