Obese kids may have extra difficulty with schoolwork and coping under stress, a preliminary study suggests.

In a survey of nearly 23,000 parents, researchers found that kids who were obese were less likely to show certain indicators of “flourishing,” versus their normal-weight peers.

That meant less engagement in schoolwork and learning, and more difficulty coping with challenging situations.

The findings do not necessarily prove that childhood obesity feeds those problems, researchers said.

But they add to evidence of the possible “psychosocial” effects of obesity, said Dr. Christopher Bolling, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics’ obesity section.

“Studies have shown that people with obesity tend to report lower quality of life, face more social stigma and have higher rates of depression,” said Bolling, who was not involved in the new research.

So it’s not surprising, added Bolling, that obese children in this study were not flourishing to the degree that their peers were.

However, “none of this means that people need to lose weight in order to be happy,” he stressed.

In fact, Bolling said, when obese kids face social stigma and other emotional difficulties, that “says something about our society.”

Dr. Natasha Gill, of Brown University and Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, R.I., led the study.

She said that when it comes to the issue of childhood obesity, attention often goes toward the potential long-term physical health effects — such as asthma and type 2 diabetes. But, she said, obesity can also have “an immediate impact” on kids’ well-being.

In this case, Gill and her team focused on five specific markers of “flourishing.” They surveyed 22,914 parents and caregivers of kids ages 10 to 17, asking them whether their child:

  • “Shows interest and curiosity in learning new things,”
  • “Works to finish tasks he or she starts,”
  • “Stays calm and in control when faced with a challenge,”
  • “Cares about doing well in school,”
  • “Does all required homework.”

Overall, nearly 28 percent of obese kids were reported to show all five markers of flourishing — versus 39 percent of normal-weight kids and 37 percent of overweight children.

According to Gill, kids who were obese did tend to spend more time on digital media and get less sleep. But even when the researchers accounted for those differences — as well as family poverty and parents’ education levels — obesity itself was still linked to lower odds of flourishing.

“There is a clear negative relationship between obesity and markers of flourishing,” Gill said. But, she noted, “it’s difficult to know which came first.”

Bolling agreed that there’s a “chicken-and-egg” question. For instance, it’s possible that kids who are ostracized or disengaged at school are more likely to gain weight excessively.

Gill was scheduled to present the findings Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in Orlando, Fla. In general, studies released at meetings are considered preliminary until they’re published in a peer-reviewed journal.

For now, Gill and Bolling recommended that adults be aware that obese kids can face more challenges at school, and with coping skills.

“Kids manifest stress in different ways,” Bolling noted. “It can turn up as physical symptoms, difficulties with relationships, or poorer school performance.”

Gill suggested parents regularly sit down with their kids to simply have conversations and check in on how they are doing.

She said research shows that flourishing markers seem to be similar to personality traits: They stay the same over time. So if children do not develop them, Gill said, that could affect them into adulthood.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on childhood obesity.

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