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The psychological impact of adolescent obesity

Friday, September 25, 2009 Posted by Travis Saunders

Image by d.billy.

The idea that adolescent obesity may provide a significant psychological burden is not terribly surprising. Adolescence is difficult under ideal circumstances, the physical stress and social discrimination that often accompany obesity could only be expected to exacerbate this situation (the ridiculously discriminatory advertisement at the top of this post may not be tolerable in today's society, but weight discrimination continues to increase in prevalence, with some arguing that it is now on par with racial discrimination in North America). The latest issue of the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity contains two papers examining this important topic - one by Helena Fonseca and colleagues which examines the psychosocial characteristics of lean, overweight, and obese adolescents, while another by Nicole Quinlan examines psychosocial changes following a weight loss intervention.  I don't think I could do both studies justice if I combined them into one post, so I will discuss Dr Fonseca's study today, and discuss Dr Quinlan's study next week.

In this new study, Dr Fonseca and colleagues aimed to identify psychosocial and lifestyle behaviors which distinguish overweight and obese teens from their lean peers.  The study included 6131 students aged 11-16 who completed questionnaires on their body weight, body image, diet history, life satisfaction, health perception, peer group involvement, happiness, irritability and alcohol use. The results are not surprising.  For starters, they report that overweight and obese individuals were more likely to perceive others as making less positive, and more negative comments about them. Further, overweight and obese teens found it more difficult to become involved with their peer group, were more likely to report being unhappy, and more likely to report abusing alcohol. These differences were of a considerable magnitude - 5.3% of obese teens reported being drunk more than 10 times, compared to just 2.4% in the lean group, while the percentage of individuals reporting that they felt irritable on a daily basis in the obese and lean groups were 12.5 and 5.2% respectively.

These results are obviously distressing, but they drive home the message that pediatric obesity is associated with serious psychosocial issues which require appropriate intervention.  The authors call for increased attention to the psychological needs of overweight and obese youth, and those concerns seem warranted. On a positive note, as I alluded to earlier, other research in this same issue of IJPO suggests that comprehensive weight loss programs may help alleviate psychosocial problems - but that is a topic for next week.  Until then, have a great weekend!


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Fonseca, H., Matos, M., Guerra, A., & Gomes Pedro, J. (2009). Are overweight and obese adolescents different from their peers? International Journal of Pediatric Obesity, 4 (3), 166-174 DOI: 10.1080/17477160802464495

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1 Response to "The psychological impact of adolescent obesity"

  1. Anonymous Said,

    Ok, wait... So, if kids teased me mercilessly about my weight and refused to play with me and hated me on sight because of my weight, so I (remarkably!) perceived others as making more negative comments about me, found it hard to get involved in my peer group, and was generally unhappy, somehow this means that I'M the one with the psychosocial problems? Wow, I should have just magically perceived all of the non-existent positive comments about myself, fit right into all social groups and felt just peachy keen! All this time, and I never knew that it was my own fault that I had no friends! Someone should have given me appropriate intervention and maybe sent me to a fat camp, because, I mean, being sent to fat camp wasn't the ultimate shame that you had to hide from everyone to avoid being teased mercilessly about it.

    Has it occurred to these researchers that maybe fat kids perceive more negative comments because they actually receive more negative comments? And can't become involved with their peer groups because their peers want nothing to do with them? It's nice to know that all my defensive mechanisms that kept me sane were actually part of the problem. Which raises the question of what on earth I was supposed to do. Oh, wait - lose weight. I remember. I'll get right on that. Again. Because all of my other good qualities combined could ever make up for this fat prison I live in.

    Posted on September 26, 2009 at 12:03 AM


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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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