Heavy Girls May Start School With Problems
Overweight Girls More Likely to Enter Kindergarten With Behavioral Problems
Aug. 2, 2004 -- Girls who are overweight may be more likely to
start kindergarten with behavioral problems already established than their
non-overweight peers, according to a new study.
But contrary to popular belief, researchers found being
overweight doesn't increase the risk of developing new behavior problems among
both boys and girls during the early elementary school years.
Researchers say psychological problems are among the most
serious consequences of being overweight during childhood. Overweight children
who are teased or ridiculed may suffer from low self-esteem and poor social
Despite these well-known problems, researchers say most studies
on the relationship between overweight and mental health have focused on older
children and adolescents.
"There has been considerable attention on overweight status
recently, often under the assumption that this can cause psychological problems
for children and prevent learning," write researcher Ashlesha Datar, PhD,
and colleagues at RAND in Santa Monica, Calif. "However, our results show
that overweight girls already have more behavior problems before kindergarten;
therefore, focusing on mental health and overweight is important in the early
Weight-Related Behavior Problems Start Early
In the study, researchers looked at the relationship between
overweight and behavior problems in young children as they entered kindergarten
and whether they developed more problems over time.
Information on height, weight, and parent- and teacher-reported
behavior problems were collected three times during the first two years of
elementary school for nearly 10,000 children.
The study showed that about one in 10 kindergarteners was
overweight when he or she started school in 1998. The percentage of overweight
boys was slightly higher than girls (11.7% vs. 10.6%).
Researchers found that overweight boys were no more likely to
have behavior problems at the start of kindergarten compared with
However, overweight girls were much more likely to have
behavior problems, as reported by parents or teachers, at the beginning of
kindergarten compared with girls who were not overweight.
Researchers say that may be at least partially due to other
factors such as the fact that overweight girls were less likely to be white and
more likely to have a family income of less than $25,000, have mothers with a
high school diploma or less, have fewer siblings, come from single-parent
families, and have a higher birth weight than their non-overweight peers.
In particular, overweight girls had an 81% increased risk in
teacher-reported externalizing behavior problems, such as arguing, getting
angry, or disturbing class. Overweight girls also had an about 50% increased
risk of teacher- and parent-reported internalizing behavior problems, such as
anxiety, feeling sad, and low self-esteem.
But Weight Doesn't Increase Risk of Developing Problems
When researchers looked at the risk of developing behavioral
problems over time, they found no proof that being overweight increased the
likelihood of developing new behavior problems in either boys or girls.
Instead, they found that low family income and having a mother
who was depressed were much stronger risk factors for children developing new
behavior problems by the end of the first grade.
For example, the odds of developing externalizing behavior
problems during the first two years of school were three times greater for
girls whose family incomes were in the lowest quarter compared with girls whose
family incomes were in the highest quarter.
The results of the study appear in the August issue of the
Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine.