Obesity pulls down kid’s school results and moreso in girls

Obese Kids
Obese Kids

Globally the prevalence of obesity has seen a dramatic increase, which has prompted the World Health Organisation to label the disease a global epidemic.  Increasingly research studies are showing that this epidemic has important implications for education, demonstrating lower academic achievement among obese students and in particular females.

A recent study  published in the International Journal of Obesity * suggests that for 11-year-old girls, obesity likely affects educational test scores throughout adolescence.  For boys, however, researchers say the evidence remains unclear.  The researchers tested scores and school grades of obese, overweight and normal-weight students in secondary and further education, controlling for demographic variables, personality, ability and well-being confounds.

The research was produced by a coalition of British universities and it measured how well some 4,000 children fared on the United Kingdom’s mandatory achievement tests (which include teacher assessments) at ages 11, 13, and 16. The girls who were obese at 11 years of age did significantly worse than their peers with healthy weights at all three ages. The same was true for girls who started off at a healthy weight at 11 years of age, but then became obese by 16 years of age.

These findings raise some interesting observations around gender and obesity, although, unfortunately not too many answers. Why, for example, are boys less likely to be prejudiced academically by obesity?  The reasons remain unclear, although other studies have concluded there could be a teacher grading bias towards obese kids.  

The studies also show that obese women face greater stigma than men  because of their weight, a factor that could also contribute to obese students’ significant absenteeism from school.  Obese females,  are also at greater risk than obese men of depression and related complications.

Obesity and depression are not a new phenomena, as research has associated the one another for a long time. In another new study,  by a Rutgers University-Camden professor an actual link between the two in adolescent girls has been confirmed.  For this study, 1500 males and females from Minnesota were assessed over a 10 year period.  Led by Professor Naomi Marmorstein, the study found that depression in young adolescent females predicts obesity in late adolescence.

Professor Marmorstein has been quoted as saying, “A lot of research has been done at this link over time, but results have been mixed. Some have said that depression and obesity are closely related, while others have said there is no connection at all. With our study, we tried to take it to the next step by looking at a sample of youth who we followed from ages 11 to 24.”

She added that the study showed that depression may lead to obesity due to an increased appetite and poor sleep, while obesity may lead to depression due to weight stigma, a lack of self-esteem and a reduced mobility.  Marmorstein further also defined that the link between obesity and depression was more like to occur in adolescent girls than in adolescent boys.

However, in order to find out why the link between obesity and depression was less likely in boys, she says further study is required, but one possible  theory could be the fact that developmental processes, leading to obesity and depression are significantly different in males.

“Adolescent girls are still developing their eating patterns as well as their activities. At the same time, they are trying to cope with feelings, changes in the body and new types of relationships that they have never encountered in their lives before. Therefore, a depressive episode at the age of 14 leaves her at more risk of having unhealthy eating patterns and these may persist into late adolescence,” Marmorstein explained.

The study encourages doctors, who treat adolescent girls suffering from depression, to consider incorporating exercise in the treatment, as exercise by itself is known to boost the mood. “It is a good way to combine the efforts in preventing depression as well as obesity.”

Going back to the British study, the researchers concluded For girls, obesity in adolescence has a detrimental impact on academic attainment five years later.  Mental health, IQ and age of menarche did not mediate this relationship,  suggesting that further work is required to understand the underlying mechanisms.  Parents, education and public health policy makers should consider the wide reaching  detrimental impact of obesity on educational outcomes in this age group.”

Clearly in countries battling with high and rising obesity levels,  there should  be more health policy focus on the prevention of childhood and adolescent obesity. Given the implications, not just the unfortunate social stigma and negative mental and physical health consequences, but now too, also poorer educational outcomes, particularly for obese female students, pro-activity and action is critical!

Obesity impairs academic attainment in adolescence: findings from ALSPAC, a UK cohort OPEN J N Booth, P D Tomporowski, J M E Boyle, A R Ness, C Joinson, S D Leary, J J Reilly

To read the original transcript of the British research, click here http://www.nature.com/ijo/journal/vaop/naam/pdf/ijo201440a.pdf To read the post on the Rutgers University research, click here https://www.camden.rutgers.edu/news/study-defines-link-between-depression-and-obesity-adolescent-girls