A new study has found that as early as first grade, severely obese children are more likely to be withdrawn and show signs of depression.
They are also less liked by their peers, and more often picked on, teased, and made fun of than their classmates of healthy weights, according to researchers at Oklahoma State University, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, and West Virginia University.
“Severe obesity is a clear psychosocial risk for children, even as early as six years old,” said Dr. Amanda W. Harrist, a professor of child development at Oklahoma State University who led the study.
“Children who are ostracized, as occurred with the severely overweight children in our study, suffer great harm, with feelings of loneliness, depression, and aggression, and these children are more likely to skip school and drop out later.”
For the study, which was published in the journal Child Development, researchers collected information from multiple sources about real children in different weight groups.
Researchers note that childhood obesity has almost quadrupled among six to 11-year-olds since 1980. Today, approximately one in 20 children in the United States is severely obese.
For the new study, children were considered overweight if they had a body-mass index (BMI) for their age at or above the 85th percentile; obese if they had a BMI at or above the 95th percentile; and severely obese if they had a BMI at or above the 99th percentile. Children were considered to be of healthy weight if their BMI was between the fifth and 85th percentile.
Researchers looked at 1,164 first graders from 29 rural schools in Oklahoma to examine the social and emotional lives of obese children. Children lived in 20 towns in eight counties with adult obesity rates of 28 percent to 41 percent. Most of the children came from mostly low-income, white families, while about a fifth of the students were from American Indian families, according to the researchers.
The study found that the more overweight the children were, the worse the consequences.
Severely obese children were teased more than overweight children. Obese children weren’t mentioned by peers when children were asked whom they liked to play with most and least, according to the researchers.
Severely obese children were actively rejected by their peers. They were frequently mentioned as their least favorite playmates and rarely mentioned as the most favorite.
In terms of emotional health, severely obese children had more symptoms of depression than children who were overweight and of healthy weights, according to the study’s findings.
Additionally, compared with overweight children, both severely obese and obese children had more physical symptoms, such as complaints of pain and visits to the school nurse, that may have been the result of stress or psychological concerns, the researchers reported.
The researchers add that being teased and rejected by peers — and becoming depressed as a result — may exacerbate children’s struggles with weight over time.
For example, obese children often engage in emotional eating to deal with the pain of rejection, or they may avoid physical play with peers to avoid teasing, both behaviors that would lead to additional weight gain, the researchers explained.
“Intervention or prevention efforts should begin early and target peer relationships,” suggested Dr. Glade L. Topham, an associate professor of marriage and family therapy at Oklahoma State University and a coauthor of the study. “Interventions addressing the behavior of peer groups can limit exclusion and teasing, and help students form friendships.”