Psychological Consequences of Childhood Obesity

Overweight teen unhappy with the number on the scale. Peter Dazeley/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Size matters—it’s true for adults and kids alike. Unfortunately, being overweight often carries psychological and emotional consequences, particularly for children. This makes sense if you consider that a child’s body is his or her home, a mode of transportation, and his or her calling card to the world—all rolled into one. So if a child doesn’t feel good about or comfortable with his or her body, that discomfort can affect many aspects of his or her emotional life.

Moreover, the connections between excess weight, poor body image, and emotional turmoil can be compounded and reinforced if a child develops a habit of eating for emotional reasons—to soothe hurt feelings, loneliness, sadness, anxiety, and other unpleasant feelings. Simply put, eating the wrong foods for the wrong reasons (for comfort, not hunger or fuel) can worsen the weight problem and a downward emotional spiral may develop or escalate.

State of Body, State of Mind

Given these patterns, it’s not surprising that childhood obesity has been linked with an increased risk of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, hopelessness, and other unpleasant states of mind. In a study involving 4,743 adolescents, researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, found that overweight or obese kids between the ages of 12 and 14 were significantly more likely to be depressed, have lower self-esteem, and have lower levels of functioning at school and in social situations.

It’s a poorer quality emotional life, any way you slice it.

Of course, there are always exceptions—and some overweight kids are emotionally well adjusted, fairly popular, and socially confident. But many kids who are obese have lower self-esteem than their thinner peers, which can in turn affect their behavior, making them less likely to take smart risks or assert themselves socially.


A Heavy Social Life

In a culture that places a premium on being thin and attractive, it’s not a stretch to imagine that an overweight child may feel like she doesn’t quite measure up or fit in. And indeed heavy kids may experience social discrimination (such as being picked last for teams in PE or recess). Other kids may tease or make derogatory comments about a child’s weight, call him or her nasty names, or suggest that being heavy is his or her fault.

These ugly social influences often kick in early. Research has found that negative attitudes toward obese children—including beliefs that they’re lazy, less likable, or less desirable playmates—begin during the preschool years. So it’s not surprising that overweight kids who are insulted, derided, or excluded can develop feelings of loneliness and isolation that can make them want to withdraw even more.

Overweight kids are also more likely to be bullied—or become bullies themselves. In a study involving 8,210 boys and girls, researchers in the U.K. examined children’s Body Mass Index (and its classification as underweight, normal weight, overweight, or obese) at age 7 ½ then tracked their social behavior over the course of a year: By age 8 ½ obese boys were 66 percent more likely to be overt bullies and 53 percent more likely to be overt victims of bullying than their normal-weight peers; by contrast, at 8 ½ obese girls were 53 percent more likely to be overt victims of bullying.

Meanwhile, research from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health found that while underweight boys and girls in 6th grade are more likely to bullied physically, overweight boys and obese girls are more likely to be verbally bullied (being called names, for instance). In each of these instances, everybody loses.

Emotional Ripple Effects Into Adulthood

Unfortunately, these detrimental psychological effects don’t end on the playground. They can carry over into adulthood, in powerful ways. In fact, research from Australia found that being overweight or obese as a child can increase a person’s risk of developing a mood disorder 20 years later as a young adult—an increased risk that applied to both girls and boys.

These findings are hardly a fluke: A 2013 study of nearly 92,000 female nurses in Spain found that those who were in the two highest categories for body shape at age 10 were more than twice as likely as their lean peers to suffer from depression 12 years later.  In other words, a child’s weight problem can cause a lingering emotional hangover that can persist well into adulthood. At that point, it can be hard to shed.

Changing Course 

Ultimately, obesity weighs down children physically, socially, and emotionally, in both the short term and the long. It’s a triple burden that’s too much for any child to have to bear. So it’s up to parents and children to change that by making smart food choices that will nourish growing bodies and minds and by developing a habit of eating for the right reasons (to satiate hunger or boost energy, rather than to relieve angst or anxiety). Plus, if kids can learn to feel good about what their bodies can do, not just how they look, some of the emotional factors that contribute to overeating and weight gain are likely to dissipate—and kids can begin to take pride in the skin they’re in once again.


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