Obese children face risks to their emotional and social well-being that can harm their academic performance, new research suggests.
The study, published this month in the journal Child Development, found obese elementary school children performed worse on math tests than their peers without weight problems.
A lack of social acceptance could account for the lower test scores, researchers said. Obese children who do not feel accepted by their peers often exhibit feelings of loneliness, sadness and anxiety that can hinder their academic performance.
Those feelings became even more apparent as the children progressed through school, according to the study.
"Children who have weight problems are not as well-received by their peers. That creates a condition or situation where developing social skills isn't as easy," said Sara Gable, the study's lead author and an associate professor in the department of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri, Columbia.
For girls, but not for boys, difficulty developing social skills was related to obesity.
"The stigma of obesity and lack of conformity to standards of physical appearance, girls are perhaps -- no pun intended -- feeling the weight of that more," Gable said.
The prevalence of childhood obesity in the United States has increased dramatically in recent decades. In the early 1970s, 5 percent of children ages 2 to 19 were obese. In 2007-08, 17 percent of kids in that age group were obese.
In California, physical fitness tests of public school students found 38 percent were overweight or obese in 2010. That rate varied dramatically across the state, from 11.3 percent among children in Manhattan Beach to 53 percent in Huntington Park.
In the city of Atwater, 45.1 percent of youth are overweight or obese -- the highest percentage among Merced County's three largest cities.
In Los Banos, 44.5 percent of children are obese, while the city of Merced has a 40.9 percent childhood obesity rate. Despite the high percentage, Merced's was the lowest in the county among incorporated cities with a population greater than 20,000.
For the emotional and social well-being study, the researchers analyzed data tracking 6,250 children nationwide from kindergarten through fifth grade.
They compared the academic performance of students who were obese in kindergarten or first grade and remained so through fifth grade with children who were never obese.
The data also included teacher reports of children's interpersonal skills and feelings such as sadness or loneliness.
When children were tested one-on-one in math, those who were obese began scoring lower than their peers in first grade, the study found. The timing suggests that the relationship between obesity and poor academic performance takes root as children progress in school, Gable said.
Claudia Corchado, program manager for the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program in Merced, said children who are obese are more prone to be depressed, sad and picked on by their peers in school.
Sometimes that even creates a situation where the child doesn't look forward to going to school, she said. "They probably know what's in store for them," she said. "And then you have the social pressures of other kids."
California Watch is a project of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. For more, visit http://californiawatch.org.
The Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program and the Merced County Office of Education will provide free screenings of the HBO documentary "The Weight of the Nation." The screenings will be from noon to 2:30 p.m. today and June 27 at the Merced County Office of Education.
To RSVP for the screening, call Maria at (209) 381-6600, Ext. 4601.