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Teen Anger May Add Up to Extra Pounds

Overweight Kids Develop Unhealthy Ways of Dealing With Emotions, Says Researcher
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WebMD Health News

March 5, 2004 -- From Rebel Without a Cause to The OC,teens have never had an easy time with anger management, but now a new study suggests that anger may "feed" teenage appetites and increase risk of obesity.

Researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston report that problems expressing anger set teens up for a lifetime of weight problems.

In a prepared statement, William H. Mueller, PhD, who is lead researcher of the study, says, "Overweight kids have poor health behaviors, including anger expression, which may lead to increased weight, especially in girls." The research was presented at the American Heart Association's 44th annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention.

The Link Between Anger and BMI

American Heart Association spokeswoman Julia Steinberger, MD, MS, associate professor of pediatric cardiology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, tells WebMD that the study is interesting but doubts it makes a strong enough case to suggest that anger management is the key to lifelong weight control.

"Just because they are finding an association doesn't mean that anger is the cause of the obesity. I don't mean to belittle the importance of psychological variables, but I have a hard time saying this [anger] is clearly what links cardiovascular disease and BMI." BMI, or body mass index, is an indicator of body fat.

The Texas researchers have been studying anger and teens since the mid-1990s when a small study suggested a link between obesity and anger.

Mueller and colleagues followed a group of 160 teens aged 14 to 17 for three years. Researchers measured BMI at the start of and during the study. The teenagers also completed an anger evaluation questionnaire to gauge anger levels, which measured "anger in," "anger out," "anger control," and "anger expression."

"Anger in" is not expressing feelings out of fear of what other people will think, Mueller says. "Anger out" is yelling, slamming doors, and other aggressive behaviors. The "anger control" score measured the level of maturity and healthy expression of feelings. The "anger expression" score factored in all of the scores -- increasing with higher "anger in" and "anger out" scores and decreasing with higher a "anger control" score.

Researchers found that anger habits in a child tended to remain stable over time. However, average anger control scores increased over time and were higher in children with lower BMIs. Anger expression scores decreased over time but were higher in children with increasing BMI's.

"These kids develop unhealthy ways of dealing with their emotions. They tend to isolate themselves, watch TV or read rather than connecting with their friends," Mueller says.

The researchers say that children with high "anger control" scores acknowledge their feelings of anger but are able to express those feelings appropriately. Importantly, they say these high anger control children tend to have normal weights.

"It is not just 'anger in' or 'anger out,'" Mueller says. "We're suggesting that it is important to look at the emotional health of kids. It's beyond just diet and exercise. We need to look at the broader sociological picture. If they feel good about resolving interpersonal stress and learn to decrease conflict, these skills will spill over into their general lifestyle."

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