Obese children may be more likely to develop anxiety or depression than their peers, according to the results of studies done in Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
Researchers in Sweden tracked more than 12,000 children being treated for obesity. They found girls were 43% more likely to develop anxiety or depression than children at a normal weight. Obese boys had a 33% higher risk of those mental health problems.
Louise Lindberg from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden led the research. She says researchers "see a clear increased risk of anxiety and depressive disorders in children and adolescents with obesity compared with a population-based comparison group that cannot be explained by other known risk factors such as socioeconomic status and neuropsychiatric disorders. These results suggest that children and adolescents with obesity also have an increased risk of anxiety and depression, something that healthcare professionals need to be vigilant about."
Meanwhile, researchers in the U.K. analyzed results from more than 17,000 children. They found girls and boys with obesity at age 7 were at greater risk of emotional problems by age 11. That, in turn, predicted a high body mass index (BMI) at 14. Now, researchers are trying to figure out why obesity and emotional problems may be linked.
Dr. Charlotte Hardman from the University of Liverpool co-led this study. She says "children with higher BMI may experience weight-related discrimination and poor self-esteem, which could contribute to increased depressive symptoms over time, while depression may lead to obesity through increased emotional eating of high-calorie comfort foods, poor sleep patterns, and lethargy."
The British researchers found that obesity and emotional problems tended to come together between the ages of 7 to 14, but not in early childhood. They say they also found poverty to play a role in how children were affected. Researchers say lower socioeconomic status is strongly associated with both obesity, and poor mental health, and they're looking into whether that may partly explain the link.
"For instance, socioeconomically deprived areas tend to have poorer access to health foods and green spaces," says Dr. Praveetha Patalay, co-leader of the research from University College London. That "may contribute to increased obesity and emotional problems, and compound the effects of family-level socioeconomic disadvantage".
Both studies used data from larger, nationwide studies following children over a number of years. Researchers in Sweden say since their results came from an observational study, they can't prove obesity causes depression or anxiety. But, they say their results clearly link obesity with a higher risk of anxiety and depression in children and adolescents, and encourage more experts to look into the matter.
"Given the rise of obesity and impaired mental health in young people, understanding the links between childhood obesity, depression, and anxiety is vital", says Lindberg. "Further studies are needed to explain the mechanisms behind the association between obesity and anxiety/depression".
Researchers in the U.K. say they hope the results encourage parents and doctors not to hesitate if they see a problem. Dr. Hardman says "our findings highlight the importance of early interventions that target both weight and mental health and minimize negative outcomes later in childhood." Her colleague, Dr. Patalay, adds "as both rates of obesity and emotional problems in childhood are increasing, understanding their co-occurrence is an important public health concern, as both are linked with poor health in adulthood. The next steps are to understand the implications of their co-occurrence and how to best intervene to promote good health."
Kim Lucey is a freelance journalist with more than a decade of experience in the field. Her career has included coverage of big breaking news events like the Sandy Hook school shooting, lockdown in Watertown, MA following the Boston marathon bombings, and Superstorm Sandy. Her in-depth reports have garnered awards, including a focus on treating mental health issues in children. Currently, she is a reporter at a television station covering the news across the Greater Boston Area with an appreciation for fact-finding and storytelling. Follow Kim on Facebook and Twitter.