The physical health effects of childhood obesity are well researched and documented. They include type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, sleep apnea and certain forms of cancer. Less talked about are the psychological damages children and adolescents with weight problems often suffer. But the truth is that low self-esteem, discrimination and isolation in connection with obesity can be just as devastating as the physical aspects and can make matters even worse.
Weight Problems at a Young Age Set the Stage
For an Array of Health Problems that Can Last a Lifetime
Too many overweight kids find themselves being teased and made fun of because of their physical appearance, according to psychologist Dr. Kelly Brownell, the director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. Teasing, he says can come from classmates, teachers, even from family members. More so than adults, children tend to internalize criticism or scorn, which can make them feel inferior, unattractive or out of place. In response, many lose their aspirations and motivations to better themselves. They withdraw and become socially isolated. Some develop behavioral dysfunctions, depression or addictions.
The psychological consequences of weight problems at a young age are not easily outgrown. As adults, many continue to carry the scars from their earlier struggles. A study conducted by epidemiologists at the University of Michigan found that people who were overweight during their high school years were significantly less likely to pursue higher education or professional carriers and were more at risk of unemployment and dependency on welfare programs than their normal-weight peers.
One of the reasons why overweight kids are discriminated against may be the still widespread assumption that all weight problems are caused by lack of personal discipline and restraint. “People think that overweight adults have only themselves to blame. They should eat less and exercise more,” says Dr. Brownell. “But blame is simply unreasonable when it comes to children, especially in low-income neighborhoods where markets are often inadequate and places to exercise are nearly nonexistent. So, it’s unfair to put people in an environment where weight gain is a very strong possibility and then blame them for having problems.”
Another issue often mentioned in connection with childhood obesity is the powerful influence of food marketing. Children and adolescents are extremely impressionable and don’t know how to respond to the conflicting messages they are receiving from society, popular culture and the media. On the one hand, they are constantly challenged to comply with physical beauty ideals, which can put a lot of pressure on them to be thin, especially on girls, thereby increasing the risk of developing eating disorders. On the other hand, they are constantly exposed to food and soda ads on TV, encouraging them to consume more. A 2006 study by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found compelling evidence that food advertisements had a direct impact on childhood obesity. On average, American children watch up to 10,000 food, soda and snack commercials every year, according to a survey by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), titled “Children, Adolescents and Advertising.” For the food and beverage industry, this is a multi-billion dollars investment worthwhile making. Under these circumstances, the notion that it’s up to the kids themselves to exercise self-control is just laughable.
In an ideal world, parents would be best equipped to prevent childhood obesity from occurring in their families in the first place. But parents are often too busy to control their offspring’s eating habits or are having weight issues themselves. Statistics show that if one parent is overweight, the children have a 40 percent chance to follow in his or her footsteps. If both parents are struggling, the chances increase to 80 percent.
Healthy eating and lifestyle habits do not just appear out of nowhere. They must involve the entire family but also social surroundings like schools, work places and communities. Instead of further stigmatizing people of all ages because of their weight problems, we as a society must find ways to address the issues at hand constructively by creating an environment that is conducive to the health and wellbeing of all its members.