Preteens who are overweight are often bullied or excluded from social activities, increasing their likelihood of anxiety and emotional problems, researchers say.
Demeaning peer responses
Efforts to prevent or ease emotional distress among overweight students must address these negative and discriminatory behaviours, according to the authors of a new study.
"The widespread misconception is that anyone who is heavy is likely to feel distressed because of their weight, yet our findings suggest that demeaning peer responses to weight is the primary social factor underlying these emotional problems," said study lead author Jaana Juvonen. She is a professor of developmental psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
"These emotional issues can develop just as a teen is entering middle school, which is already a very difficult and emotional transition for many adolescents," Juvonen added.
The study reviewed data collected from over 5,100 middle school students in California, including their body mass index (BMI). BMI a measurement used to determine if people are in the normal weight range for their height.
Feelings of loneliness
The investigators analysed students' responses to questions about their experiences with weight discrimination and how these experiences affected them from one school year to the next. The researchers also considered how a student's BMI in sixth grade indirectly affected his or her emotional health in eighth grade.
About 30 percent of the kids experienced at least one act of weight discrimination by seventh grade, the findings showed.
By eighth grade, girls reported more feelings of loneliness, as well as physical complaints such as headaches, tiredness, stomach pains, nausea and loss of appetite.
Anti-obesity programmes may unintentionally play a part in stigmatising kids, the study authors said.
"Despite good intentions, many health programmes may nonetheless be increasing the prevalence of weight stigma, inasmuch as overweight or obese youth are blamed for their looks," Juvonen said in a news release from the Society of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology.
"Our findings suggest that school-based programmes aiming to reduce obesity should not only promote healthy behaviours, but also increase weight acceptance and body-shape diversity," she concluded.
The report was published online in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology.