Obese children at greater risk of developing mental health problems

Researchers found obese adolescents may face discrimination over their weight

FILE - In this June 26, 2012 file photo, two women converse in New York. New government figures released Friday, Oct. 13, 2017 showed small increases that were not considered statistically significant but were seen by some as a cause for concern. The adult obesity rate rose from to about 40 percent, from just shy of 38 percent. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
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Obese children are at a greater risk of developing mental health problems, reinforcing the need for early intervention.

A new study, presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow, found that young children with a higher Body Mass Index are liable to suffer from depression owing to "weight-related discrimination" and "poor self-esteem".

The reports authors said it underlined just how crucial it was for early interventions that target excess weight and mental health issues for children to enjoy a better quality of life.

The problems tended to develop “hand-in-hand” from as young as seven years of age, according to the research of more than 17,000 UK children born between 2000 and 2002.

Adolescence, described as between seven and 14, is regarded as a particularly delicate time for weight and emotional issues. Girls were particularly at risk.

“Children with higher Body Mass Index may experience weight-related discrimination and poor self-esteem, which could contribute to increased depressive symptoms over time,” said the study’s co-leader Dr Charlotte Hardman from the University of Liverpool.

She said that children may find themselves caught in a vicious circle in which they indulge in comfort eating owing to unhappiness over their body shape, which only leads to further weight gain.

“Depression may lead to obesity through increased emotional eating of high-calorie comfort foods, poor sleep patterns, and lethargy,” said Dr Hardman.

She called for people in positions of influence – such as health care professionals and parents – to be pro-active to “minimise negative outcomes later in childhood”.

The research asked parents to judge their children’s feelings of low mood and anxiety at the ages of three, five, seven, 11 and 14, which was then cross-referenced against the youngsters' height and BMI.

About a fifth of those with obesity had high levels of emotional distress by adolescence. Girls were more at risk but co-occurrence was similar for both sexes.

Researchers said it was important to remember that living in comparative poverty only exacerbated the situation.

“Socioeconomically deprived areas tend to have poorer access to healthy food and green spaces, which may contribute to increased obesity and emotional problems,” said Dr Praveetha Patalay, from University College London.

There is also concern that adolescents are aware and internalise societal attitudes towards being overweight, factors that multiply any potential risk factors. Failing to control one’s weight might then result in feelings of “failure, guilt and impaired self-esteem” if trying to restrict the diet.

This can then lead to a harmful cycle of “emotional eating” comfort foods and “stress-induced alterations to metabolic signals that control energy balance”.

The researchers said their work was adjusted for a range of factors known to affect both obesity and mental health including gender, ethnicity and behavioural problems, as well as parents’ mental health.

The report has been published in Jama Psychiatry.

Health authorities estimate up to 40 per cent of the child population in the UAE are either overweight or obese, with that trend leading to serious health conditions later.

Dubai Health Authority and the Knowledge and Human Development Authority introduced a mandatory two-and-a-half hours of exercise a week in schools to counter obesity in September.