The study involved an analysis of 17,215 children from the United Kingdom (UK) who were born between 2000 and 2002, all of whom were participating in the "Millennium Cohort Study," a UK birth study of over more than 19,000 individuals born in the year 2000 to 2001.
The researchers collected the children’s height and weight at ages 3, 5, 7, 11, and 14. The children’s parents were also asked to fill out questionnaires about their kids’ mental health and possible emotional issues, including feelings of low mood and anxiety. The researchers also made adjustments to accommodate different factors that have been proven to affect both mental health and obesity, such as gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, behavioral problems, and parents’ mental health.
Obesity and anxiety appear to develop together from age 7
After analyzing the data, the researchers found that the rates of obesity and emotional issues tended to increase as the children grew older. By age 14, nearly 8% of the children were obese, and around twice the number were reported to experience anxiety and feelings of low mood. By the time they were adolescents, around a fifth of the children with obesity also reported high levels of emotional distress.
The researchers also found that obesity and emotional problems appeared to start occurring hand-in-hand when the children were 7 years old, but not when they were 3 to 5 years old. Girls were also found to have higher body mass index (BMI) and emotional symptoms than boys when they were between 7 to 14 years old, but the co-occurrence and development of both issues were similar in girls and boys.
The study did not look into possible reasons behind the results, but the researchers offer some factors that may help explain the link. One is a socio-economic disadvantage or poverty.
“The shared socio-economic risk in the development of obesity and poor mental ill-health could be explained by numerous factors,” says Dr. Praveetha Patalay of University College London, who co-authored the study, as reported by ScienceDaily. “For instance, socio-economically deprived areas tend to have poorer access to healthy food and green spaces, which may contribute to increased obesity and emotional problems, and compound the effects of family-level socio-economic disadvantage.”
Another possible explanation may be the fact that children who have higher BMI tend to develop poor self-esteem, according to Dr. Charlotte Hardman, a senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool, who served as co-author of the study.
“Children with higher BMI may experience weight-related discrimination and poor self-esteem, which could contribute to increased depressive symptoms over time (as has been shown in adults), while depression may lead to obesity through increased emotional eating of high-calorie comfort foods, poor sleep patterns, and lethargy,” Hardman says, as reported by Tech Times.
In an article for HealthDay, Samantha Heller, a senior clinical nutritionist at NYU Langone Health in New York City, who was not involved in the study, also offers some insight on the results.
“Obese children may have less healthy diets, be less physically active, and be under the influence of the highly palatable, highly processed foods that encourage over-consumption,” Heller states. “Growing children, who are in the throes of discovering who they are, may be particularly vulnerable to these effects as well as being bullied, made fun of, and stigmatized by their peers.”
What parents and caregivers can do to help avoid childhood obesity
There’s no question that childhood obesity is a serious health issue, which is why the researchers are now encouraging parents, caregivers, and health care providers to become aware of the problem and to find possible ways to prevent it early on.
“As both rates of obesity and emotional problems in childhood are increasing, understanding their co-occurrence is an important public health concern, as both are linked with poor health in adulthood,” Patalay says.
“The next steps are to understand the implications of their co-occurrence and how to best intervene to promote good health.”
Hardman adds, “Awareness and understanding that higher weight and emotional problems often occur together might be important for parents. For health care practitioners working in prevention and early intervention, targeting both health outcomes might be of benefit.”
Aside from poor diets, excessive screen time and insufficient physical activity can be considered factors that contribute primarily to the occurrence of childhood obesity. Thankfully, these are hurdles that can be addressed with the help of lifestyle changes.
“Parents and caregivers should be role models and encourage a dietary pattern of a balanced, more plant-based, less processed foods lifestyle, daily physical activity and less screen time,” Heller suggests. “All of these things can help improve self-esteem and well-being, improve gut health, and manage weight.”
To learn more about the World Health Organization’s guidelines on physical activity and screen time for children, click here. To learn more about correct food portions and how to encourage children to embrace a healthier diet, click here.