Today, about one in five school-aged children (ages 6–19) has obesity. One in three is overweight. It appears that these children are four times more likely to face depression as adults. These are the findings of a new study from the VU Medical Center in Amsterdam. Researchers found that people who were obese at 8 or 13 years of age (two points taken during childhood) were more likely to suffer from a lifetime major depressive disorder versus people who only battled weight problems as adults.
Childhood obesity already takes an emotional toll on many children. This can be due to the social stigma attached to being overweight, a greater chance of having lower self-esteem than peers and negative self-image, the bullying, cyber-bullying, or discrimination that may occur during childhood, adolescence or beyond, and the social isolation this can lead to.
This study confirms that it also takes a psychological toll. Of course, this study only found a link between obesity and depression and confirmed earlier studies that also found an increased risk of depression in obese children. It did not prove that obesity causes depression.
Which Condition Comes First?
Does obesity cause mental health issues? Do mental health issues cause obesity? These are inevitable questions that likely have many answers. Both obesity and depression are complex, both involving multiple variables. Therefore, one perfect, correct, clear answer is unlikely.
What we do know is that they can both exist and be closely tied. They may also exist individually. When both are present, though, it can make sucessful treatment more challenging.
What can we learn from all this?
Depression and obesity have become major public health issues in young children. Studies like this show that we no longer need to view them as seperate health conditions. In many cases, they can be closely linked and this can shine light on finding the most successful treatment.
Parents can play a major role in improving lives of overweight children and helping them achieve a healthy weight.
One article from the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC) includes useful strategies for parents to help reduce the toll of weight bias on their children.
Parents can help increase awareness of weight bias at schools. Using sensitive and appropriate language about weight in front of their child is also important.
While a fixation with numbers and weight can be unhealthy and even dangerous, conveying a positive message of being healthy and active can be useful for children. As the article from the OAC mentions, parents should emphasize health rather than thinness and appearance.
This study also highlights the importance of parents openly communicating with children that may be bullied, socially isolated, depressed, or dealing with other emotional or psychological issues. This can be the first step toward helping, treating, and protecting their mental and emotional health.
Deborah Gibson-Smith, Ph.D. student, VU University Medical Center, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; James Zervios, spokesman, Obesity Action Coalition; May 18, 2017, presentation, European Congress on Obesity, Porto, Portugal
Heavy Kids Face Triple the Odds for Depression in Adulthood: MedlinePlus Health News. (n.d.). Retrieved May 26, 2017, from https://medlineplus.gov/news/fullstory_165743.html
Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Lawman HG, Fryar CD, Kruszon-Moran D, Kit BK, Flegal KM, Trends in Obesity Prevalence Among Children and Adolescents in the United States, 1988-1994 Through 2013-2014. JAMA, 2016. 315(21): p. 2292-2299.
Puhl, R. (n.d.). Childhood Obesity and Stigma . Retrieved May 26, 2017, from http://www.obesityaction.org/educational-resources/resource-articles-2/childhood-obesity-resource-articles/childhood-obesity-and-stigma