A new study by researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College London, shows that children with emotional difficulties are at higher risk for obesity in adult life.
Previous research has shown that low self-esteem and emotional problems are found in people who are overweight or obese – but not which influences which.
The team studied data from around 6,500 members of the 1970 British Birth Cohort Study who, as 10 year-olds, had been assessed for emotional problems, self-perceptions and Body Mass Index (BMI), and who reported on their BMI again at age 30. The researchers found that children with a lower self-esteem, those who felt less in control of their lives and those who worried often were more likely to gain weight over the next 20 years. They also found that girls were slightly more affected by these factors than boys.
Team leader Andrew Ternouth said: ‘While we cannot say that childhood emotional problems cause obesity in later life, we can certainly say they play a role, along with factors such as parental BMI, diet and exercise.’
The authors suggest that early intervention for children suffering low self-esteem, anxiety or other emotional challenges could help improve their chances of long-term physical health. Ternouth continues: ‘Strategies to promote social and emotional aspects of learning, including the promotion of self-esteem, are central to a number of recent policy initiatives. Our findings suggest that approaches of this kind may carry positive benefits for physical health as well as for other aspects of children’s development.’
The authors conclude: ‘Given the growing problem with childhood obesity in many western societies, these findings are particularly important. On a larger scale, they may offer hope in the battle to control the current obesity epidemic.’
I love this study as it is big enough and over a long enough period to suggest a strong correlation between how we feel as children and how healthy we are as adults. Of course, now we know that this is an issue, how we can we affect childhood self-esteem? There are few children whose carers and teachers are not doing their best already. One way is to allow children to exert a measure of control over their own lives as this has been shown to improve self-esteem.
‘Childhood emotional problems and self-perceptions predict weight gain in a longitudinal regression model’, Andrew Ternouth, David Collier and Barbara Maughan, BMC Medicine (in press).
The full article is available on the journal website.