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Childhood Obesity and Psychological Development

Posted Feb 21 2012 8:01pm

The psychological development of any child that agonizes because of childhood obesity, regardless of what causes the obesity, is likely to be negatively affected. As a pandemic of adult obesity continues to advance unabated because of modernization, urbanization, economic growth and globalization, the children of the world proportionally, and increasingly, suffer. Many times, obese children demonstrate potentially permanent debilitating psychological maladjustments including:

  • Low Self-esteem
  • Flawed Self-image
  • Depression
  • Anxiety Disorders

The Definition of Obesity

Obesity is the state of having an excessive amount of body fat when compared with the amount of lean body mass. Body Mass Index (BMI) chartsare primarily used to classify differing degrees of human obesity. Worldwide obesity levels continue to skyrocket due to:

  • Easy availability of nutrient-poor, high-fat, high-sugar, high-sodium foods;
  • Lifestyles that are severely lacking in regular physical activity;
  • Increasing income levels within highly populated urban areas;
  • Mass usage of public transport;
  • Prevalence of home-based technologies;
  • Physically passive pursuits of leisure;
  • Family dysfunction;
bmi chart 300x233 Childhood Obesity and Psychological Development

Children who grow up overweight and/or obese tend to become obese adults. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are more than 1 billion adults that are overweight globally. Of those, more than 300 million are classified as obese. It’s also estimated that more than 22 million children under 5 years old are obese. Clinical research consistently indicates that a variety of negative psychological developments are occurring amongst obese children.

With more than 20% of all children between 6 and 17 now believed to be obese, childhood obesity levels have roughly triples in the past 3 decades. For instance, 6 to 11 year old obesity rates have raised from 6.5% in 1980 up to 19.6% in 2008. And for children between 2 and 6 years old, obesity rates have increased from 5% in 1980 to 12.4% in 2008.

Children of 2 obese/overweight parents have their probability of becoming obese increased by roughly 70%. Obese children are also 70% probable to remain obese as adults. Very commonly, social discrimination acts to keep obese children from exercising and otherwise interacting with their schoolmates. In turn, this may lead to the development of various antisocial tendencies.

Childhood Obesity & Low Self-Esteem

  • Children learn early about body awareness. Children are affected every day by other children around them. Harsh personal judgments are brought down because of superficial characteristics and features including clothing, looks, poverty level, and especially, weight.
  • Self-esteem issues observed in obese children show that they are unsatisfied with their lives on many levels – not simply because of their physical appearances.
  • A 2000 study by Dr. Richard Strauss concluded that overweight/obese girls were 4 times more likely than healthy-weight girls to develop low self-esteem.
  • Overweight children with low self-esteem are more likely to feel lonely, experience anxiousness, drink alcohol, smoke, take drugs and feel depressed than are their peers with healthy self-esteem.
  • Additionally, because obesity is looked upon undesirably in so many societies, obese children are subjected daily to generalized stereotypes, misinformation and lacking social compassion. They often end up with deep-rooted feelings of lessened self esteem.

Childhood Obesity & Developing a Flawed Self-Image

Children live in the constant endeavor of forming mental concepts of themselves. It’s also proven that peer response and social acceptance are integral factors in the multi-faceted equation of self-identification. Obese children receive an almost never-ending barrage of value judgments, insults, attitudes and other acts of discrimination.
One of the strongest factors that determine self-esteem in children is the perception that others have of them. That perception determines how others react to them, which in turn directly influences their self-esteem.

Clinical Statistics about Childhood Obesity & Anxiety Disorders

  • About 1/3 of obese children and adolescents self-report psychological maladjustment.
  • Almost 2/3 of the same children’s mothers will report psychological maladjustment concerning them.
  • Levels of psychological distress increases for all family members when an obese child is not adjusting to life in a psychologically normal way.
  • As overweight and obese children age, they are cumulatively affected by discrimination and generalized societal chastisement. Over time, their economic, social and educational life areas are negatively affected.

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Childhood Obesity & Depression

  • Clinical research has proven that childhood obesity can lead to the onset of chronic depression. Obese children often feel hopelessly sad about not being able to fit in with their healthy-weight peers.
  • Many times, depressed obese children demonstrate changes in sleeping patterns and lose interest in leisure and/or pleasure-based activities.
  • Obese children live with consistent feelings of insecurity. They often feel as though they are inferior to their peers. The social lives of obese children continually suffer, largely due to feelings of discomfort in social situations.
  • Children and teenagers who experience depression tend to continue to battle depression as adults.
  • Obese children often develop a “flattened out” emotionality. When children live with obesity, they also demonstrate increased probabilities for suicidal thinking.

More facts about childhood obesity:

Further research shows that most children (even obese children) agree that being obese is undesirable. These children state that they would rather befriend someone with an obvious physical handicap. When they look at pictures of overweight kids, they state that they would not befriend them. Obese children are likely to be thought of and looked upon as disruptive, immature and/or otherwise inferior. Classmates and teachers alike discriminate against obese children.


Zeller, M. H., Saelens, B. E., Roehrig, H., Kirk, S., Daniels, S. R. (2004) Psychological adjustment of obese youth presenting for weight management treatment. Obes Res 12: 1576–1586.


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