TUESDAY, April 24 (HealthDay News) -- Even first-graders might
be shunned by their peers if they are overweight or obese, new
In the study, first-graders at 29 different schools in rural
Oklahoma rated how much they liked to play with each of their
classmates. Children who were overweight and obese scored
significantly worse than thin students.
"This is striking to me because these are just little kids," said study author Amanda Harrist, an associate professor of human development and family science at Oklahoma State University. "I think this might be one reason that kids in elementary school that are obese avoid school, and it could exacerbate their weight problem" because they are less likely to play and get exercise, she added.
The research is scheduled to be presented Tuesday at the
Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego.
About 17 percent of children and teens in the United States are
obese, and one in three children under the age of 5 is obese or
overweight, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
With overweight and obesity becoming so common among children,
it might stand to reason that acceptance may also be increasing.
But, a previous study suggested that obese children are actually
more disliked now than they were several decades ago.
In the current study, researchers surveyed 1,139 students whose
average age was 6. They showed each student a photo of their
classmates and asked them to say how much they liked playing with
them on a scale of one to three.
More than one-third of the children in the study were
overweight, or had a body mass index (BMI) in the top 15 percent
for their age and sex, and 16 percent of the children were obese,
meaning they had a BMI in the top 5 percent for their age and
"This study shows that not only is [discrimination] starting really early, but the consequences are very likely starting early as well," said Rebecca Puhl, director of research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.
"This leads to a range of negative psychological consequences -- higher depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and a lot of times kids who are getting teased about their weight turn to unhealthy eating behaviors and avoid physical activity," Puhl explained.
It is possible that the overweight children in the study acted
differently than their thin counterparts, and that it was their
behavior rather than their weight that made them less popular,
Harrist noted. If children are unhappy, they might be less friendly
toward others and also more likely to overeat, she added.
In their surveys, Harrist and her colleagues asked children
about each classmate's conduct, such as whether they got mad
easily. The group is now analyzing those data to see if behavioral
problems are associated with being overweight and being less
The researchers also asked the teachers of the classes in their
study to estimate how well they thought each student was liked. The
teachers' estimates matched the student ratings, and were similarly
associated with weight, indicating that the teachers were tuned in
to which kids were accepted.
Teachers could be the best defense against weight stigma,
Harrist said. She and her colleagues are developing a curriculum
based on the message that every kid should be able to play and
targeting peer relations in addition to diet and exercise.
"Intervention and prevention efforts have to start early. You don't want to wait until sixth-grade," Harrist said.
And intervention efforts have to reach all schools, Puhl pointed
out. Her research has found that teachers in rural settings are
less likely to step in than their city counterparts, perhaps
because policies are different or bullying is more rampant in urban
Even worse, teachers themselves have been found to have
prejudices against overweight students. Special training for
teachers to help them understand the complexity of weight problems
might be in order, similar to the training that health care
workers, another group with known weight biases, receive, Puhl
The findings were presented at a medical meeting and should be
considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
To learn more about weight discrimination, visit the
Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.
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