Why Teasing Kids About Their Weight Might Make Them Gain More

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At Westchester Health Pediatrics, we have quite a few patients who are overweight or obese, and together with them, we talk a lot about the emotional impact of this. And what we’ve learned over the years is that overweight kids, both girls and boys, are often teased or bullied because of the way they look, which can really take a toll on their mental health and stay with them for years.

We recently came across an excellent article on wamc.org about this subject, highlighting a study that was published in May in the journal Pediatric Obesity. Because we feel this is an important topic to make both kids and parents aware of, we’d like to highlight the major points of the story below. You can read it in its entirety here.

School can be tough on kids who are overweight or obese.

Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP

They’re often cruelly teased and bullied. And this type of bullying can lead to long-term consequences, according to a study published in the journal Pediatric Obesity.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., and the National Institutes of Health, found that making fun of kids for their weight is linked to increased weight gain well into adulthood. In addition, the more teasing that kids and teens experience, the more weight they may gain.

Myth about weight-based teasing

One long-held theory proposes that teasing a child about their weight will have a motivating effect them to lose pounds. However, the study found that not to be true. What’s more, it found that teasing actually might increase weight gain over time.

To assess the link between teasing and weight gain, the researchers studied 110 children and young teens who were either overweight or who had two parents who were overweight. When asked whether they had been teased about their weight, 62% of participants reported that yes, they had been at least once. The researchers followed up with these kids for an average of 8.5 years, and some for up to 15 years.

Kids teased about their size gained weight

Kids who reported being teased often for their weight gained 33% more body mass, on average, and 91% more fat per year than their peers who weren’t teased. The researchers stated, “We can say weight-based teasing was significantly linked with weight gain over time.”

The stigma associated with being overweight commonly leads to a number of negative health outcomes

Other research has shown that the stigma associated with being overweight or obese contributes substantially to negative health effects, including increased body dissatisfaction, which may lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms like binge eating.

Weight-based teasing can also lead to increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can stimulate appetite and increase the risk of depression and anxiety — both of which contribute to unhealthy eating. It also may cause overweight kids to avoid physical activities like sports and gym classes, where they risk getting made fun of for their size.

Weight-shaming not just a U.S. problem

“In the Western world, weight shaming is very common,” the researchers reported. People who are large are often picked on in cartoons, TV shows and commercials. “Sometimes it’s meant in a positive way,” they added, “but when we talk to our patients, they say it makes them feel bad.”

Unique finding: being teased about their size during childhood affects people’s weight into their adult years

The study revealed that the fact that over 60% of overweight kids were bullied shows how common this is for young people today, and how many are suffering because of society’s disdain for people who are heavy. “We need to do a better job protecting adolescents from weight-based teasing,” one researcher said. For instance, while most public schools in the U.S. have anti-bullying policies in place, many do not contain provisions against weight-based teasing or bullying. But it sounds like this is something parents want: in a related study, at least 81% of parents endorsed school-based policies addressing this weight-based bullying.

Maybe we’re all a little bit to blame

Sadly, not just peers, but also parents, teachers and even healthcare providers tease kids about their weight, the study found. “If these adult figures are truly serious about helping kids who are overweight or obese, they should be finding ways to reduce teasing — and teach kids strategies to cope with and transcend the insults when they happen,” it stated.

As pediatricians, we at Westchester Health Pediatrics pledge to do everything we can to counsel our patients who are being subjected to this kind of teasing, to recognize if they are engaging in unhealthy eating or other negative activities, and to get them help if they show signs of mental or emotional distress. It’s up to all of us to stop this weight-based teasing and bullying, today and every day. Let’s make our voices heard.

To learn more, we recommend these blogs we’ve written:

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Is your child being teased or bullied about their weight? Come see us.

If you have a child who is emotionally suffering because of their size, or if you have questions about any aspects of your child’s health and well-being, please make an appointment to come in to see one of our Westchester Health Pediatrics pediatricians. Together with you and your child, we’ll talk about ways to stand up to bullies, to cope with negative emotions and shame, and to find positive, healthy ways to go forward. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.Make an appt

By Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP, Lead Pediatric Physician with Westchester Health Pediatrics, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners

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About the Author: ML Ball