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Numerous studies have found the LGBT community are at a higher risk for poor mental and physical health than straight people. We’re more likely to drink more, smoke more and report more physical and mental health issues and if you’re bisexual and/or trans, you’re at an even higher risk than the rest of the queer community. Recently, the National Health Interview Survey included questions about sexual orientation in their 2013 and 2014 surveys and found LGB participants “were more likely to report impaired physical and mental health, heavy alcohol consumption, and heavy cigarette use, potentially due to the stressors that (they) experience as a result of interpersonal and structural discrimination,” researchers wrote. Furthermore, it’s more difficult for LGBT folks to access healthcare due to poverty and discrimination within the system.
One team of researchers is trying to help figure out solutions to help queer women live a healthier life. Dr. Jane McElroy, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of Missouri, and her team led a first of its kind study to prevent obesity in lesbian and bisexual communities. In 2011, the Institute of Medicine reported that lesbian and bisexual women “may be at a greater risk of obesity” than straight women. This study prompted the Office on Women’s Health, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to launch its Healthy Weight in Lesbian and Bisexual Women (HWLB) program in 2012.
McElroy’s team tested the HWLB program to further develop health programs aimed at lesbian and bisexual communities. Over 250 cis women ages 40 and older across 10 cities participated in this landmark study. They had a pretty amazing success rate with 95 percent of the women achieving one of the program’s goals and 58 percent meeting three or more goals. What was the key to the women’s success? The study didn’t focus on weight-loss — instead it focused on the improvement of the woman’s overall health.
Previous studies have found lesbian and bisexual women have different attitudes towards body image and are more satisfied with their body than straight women, which could also be a factor as to why queer women are more “overweight” than straight women.“There’s a culture within the community that has acceptance of a larger body size,” Dr. McElroy told the Daily Beast. “And this seems to also occur with better body image and self-esteem.”
These “unique concerns” were crucial to study’s different approach. Previous research shows that lesbian and bisexual women want a “sense of community,” a “safe environment” to talk about their partners without fear of discrimination and want to focus on their health instead of losing weight.
The HWLB program was designed to help each woman reach her own cardiovascular and metabolic goals rather than focusing on reaching a certain BMI. For example, goals in the program included increasing minutes of physical activity, increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables and consuming less sugar-sweetened and alcoholic beverages. The women were successful in adopting healthier habits — with nearly 60 percent of the participants spending 20 more minutes per week being physically active. Forty percent of the women cut their intake of sugary drinks and alcohol in half. Twenty-nine percent of the women decreased their waist-to-height ratios by five percent.
All of the pilot programs across the 10 different cities in California, Missouri, Maryland and New York, were run in partnership with LGBT organizations, which helped the women feel more comfortable and safe while participating. They were involved in weekly group meetings, nutrition education and physical activity.
McElroy believes the result from the study “can motivate other communities to develop tailored interventions to support lesbian and bisexual women in achieving the active healthy lives they desire.”