New research illustrates a heart-breaking, vicious cycle: Teasing kids about their weight not only bruises their self-esteem, it also appears to trigger more weight gain.
In fact, middle schoolers who reported high levels of weight-related teasing had a 33% higher jump in their body mass index per year compared to peers who weren't teased about their weight. The ridiculed kids also had a 91% higher increase in their levels of fat compared to children who didn't get mocked about their size.
"Kids who had been teased more about their weight gained more weight and fat over time, and they gained at a steeper trajectory," said study author Natasha Schvey. She's an assistant professor in the department of medical and clinical psychology at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland.
The latest statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that one in five kids is obese – that's 18.5% of kids in America.
The study included 110 children who were either overweight or at risk of being overweight because both of their parents were overweight or obese. The average age of the kids was 12 years old when they were recruited (between 1996 and 2009).
When the kids first enrolled in the study, they completed a brief questionnaire about whether they had been teased about their weight. This brief survey didn't ask about the source of the teasing.
The participants had follow-up visits for the next 15 years.
Kids who were teased gained an average of almost a half a pound per year compared to kids who weren't teased, the findings showed.
A bunch of unhealthy behaviours
Schvey said that while her study can't prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship, the researchers did consider factors that might have accounted for the additional weight gain.
There are a number of factors that may set these kids up for more weight gain, she said.
"Weight-based teasing is associated with a bunch of unhealthy behaviours. Teasing about weight can prompt unhealthy eating. Kids may also avoid physical activity because of teasing. There might also be some biological mechanisms. Being stigmatised for your weight is a stressful experience, which might lead to an increase in stress hormones, which might make you crave unhealthy foods," Schvey explained.
The bottom line is that teasing kids about weight isn't a way to motivate them to lose weight, the study authors said.
"There is still a lingering degree of thinking that teasing or shaming might help people lose weight. Not only does it not motivate healthy behaviours, but it increases the risk of unhealthy behaviours," Schvey said.
Michelle Solo, a licensed master social worker at Ascension Eastwood Behavioral Health in Michigan, said she wasn't surprised by the findings.
"Unhealthy eating habits are often related to comfort or reducing stress," she said.
Solo said it's yet another study that shows the need for earlier interventions to teach kids that teasing isn't OK. Ideally, she said, kids should start learning this in elementary school.
Parents and teachers should help kids understand how teasing can hurt their peers and make them feel isolated.
And, if parents are doing the weight-based teasing, it's a double-whammy for the kids.
"If they're already hearing things at school about their weight, and then they hear them at home, it leaves them thinking, 'Wow, I'm not good enough here either?'" Solo said.
Better ways to cope
If parents have body weight issues themselves, the kids might internalise negative messages they hear from their parents, and start to feel as if it's normal to not feel good about your body, she added.
Solo said a better option is to focus on the healthy behaviours the family can engage in, such as getting more physical activity, like a family walk or eating healthier foods. "It's important that parents model healthy behaviours," she said.
Schvey said that a child's paediatrician can also be helpful, especially with teaching a child better ways to cope with stress from teasing.
Schvey's study, done in conjunction with colleagues at the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, was published in the journal Pediatric Obesity.
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