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Behavior Problems Linked to Weight Gain

Study Suggests Untreated Mental Health Problems Cause Obesity in Kids
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WebMD Health News

Nov. 4, 2003 - Several studies have showed that overweight kids are more likely to have behavioral problems. Now, intriguing new research suggests the bad behavior may be causing the weight gain, and not the other way around.

The study showed an increased risk for obesity in children with behavioral problems. The development of such problems in normal-weight kids was associated with a fivefold increased risk for becoming overweight within two years, says lead author Julie C. Lumeng, MD.

"We found that kids are much more likely to become overweight if they have behavioral problems," she tells WebMD. "We can't say for sure that being overweight doesn't cause behavioral problems. That may also be true. But what this study really demonstrated was that the reverse is definitely true."

Weighty Problems

Lumeng says she first noticed the association between behavioral problems and weight gain while working at an inner-city health clinic. She says parents often brought their children in to discuss sudden behavioral problems such as dropping grades or acting out at home.

"I noticed that when I saw the children again a few months later, they had often gained an enormous amount of weight," she says. "It really made me think that a possible contributor to the obesity epidemic could be untreated mental health problems that show up as behavior problems."

To test this theory, Lumeng and colleagues from Boston University School of Medicine analyzed data from a large-scale, national survey of children. Their sample included 755 children between the ages of 8 and 11 whose parents answered questionnaires about their weight and behavior. Risk factors associated with childhood obesity were also assessed.

After adjusting for such risk factors, the researchers concluded that behavioral problems were associated with a threefold increase in risk of becoming overweight. This increase was similar to other well-recognized risk factors, including living in poverty and having a mother who was obese.

The findings are published in the November issue of the journal Pediatrics.

The type of behavior problems exhibited did not appear be a factor in whether the children gained weight. Lumeng says kids who showed aggression or otherwise acted out were just as likely to become overweight as kids who became withdrawn and showed other signs of depression.

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