Obesity is linked to emotional problems in children, experts say in new research that shows evidence that the two develop hand-in-hand in children.
Researchers have been tapped to present their findings regarding the relationship between obesity and mental health in children at the European Congress on Obesity held in Glasgow, United Kingdom on April 28 to May 1, 2019.
Study Links Obesity To Mental Health
According to a news release in Eurekalert, researchers analyzed data from a pool of more than 17,000 children in the United Kingdom and found that obese children at the age of 7 are at more risk of emotional problems when they reach the age of 11. In turn, this is linked to a higher BMI when they reach 14 years old.
In the study, researchers collected information about the children's height and weight at the ages of 3, 5, 7, 11, and 14, while parents answered a questionnaire about their children's emotional problems, including low mood and anxiety. The team adjusted for factors known to affect obesity and mental health, such as gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and parents' mental health, among others.
Findings published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry show that rates of both obesity and emotional problems rise during childhood and adolescence. Nearly 8 percent of young participants were obese by 14 years old, while about twice of that number reported feelings of low mood and anxiety. In adolescence, 20 percent of the people with obesity also had emotional problems.
While obesity and adolescence are shown to develop together in mid-childhood and adolescence, the link is not there in early childhood at 3 to 5 years old.
Dr. Charlotte Hardman, study co-leader from the University of Liverpool, explains that their findings will help treat children with obesity.
"People think it's as simple as eating less and exercising more — but it's much more complex than that," she told BBC. "Obesity and emotional problems are intertwined."
She added that with the two linked and exacerbating each other, it could mean that children get stuck in vicious cycles. After all, the association between obesity and mental health is well documented in the case of adults.
Why Obesity, Mental Health Is Connected
While the study did not include the reason behind the relationship between obesity and depression, researchers reveal that there are different factors that could account for it.
"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", explained Hardman.
Furthermore, when socieconomic status became part of the equation, the link between BMI and emotional problems slightly decreased, which indicates that it may be one of the explanations for the relationship between the two.
Study co-leader Dr. Praveetha Patalay from the University College London points out that children in socioeconomically deprived areas have less access to healthy food and green spaces, which could affect both obesity and emotional problems.
"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," continued Patalay. "The next steps are to understand the implications of their co-occurrence and how to best intervene to promote good health."