x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Hidden risks of obesity lie in children's minds

Risk of depression and low self esteem rises dramatically with obese children and adolescents.

ABU DHABI // Regional health professionals yesterday discussed the long-term psychological impact of obesity on children, an often underestimated factor that experts said had the potential to be debilitating if not addressed.

Fat children were almost always rejected by their peers, said Professor Andrew Hill yesterday at the Child and Adolescent Obesity Conference organised by the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (Seha) and the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (Haad).

Prof Hill, the head of the academic unit of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the University of Leeds in the UK, said that cultural attitudes towards obesity - considered a shameful, undesirable fault - meant that children with a high Body Mass Index (BMI) were at a severe disadvantage. One in two of them would be bullied in school.

"Countless studies over decades have shown that children who are obese have fewer friends, are less liked by parents, do poorly in school, are less fit and are less content with their appearance," he said.

In the past five years, more than 15 studies among 59,000 obese and overweight children aged four to 19 showed that obesity was more likely to cause depression, and vice versa; a vicious cycle, Prof Hill said.

"The psychological distress experienced by these children - the mood disorders, binge eating, body dissatisfaction, bodily shame, and, most of all, low self esteem and self regard - mean that we as doctors are fighting a losing battle in treating and helping this child," he said.

Depressed children are three times more likely not to engage in treatment and experience continued weight gain, he said.

The concern is that children who are overweight or obese are 70 per cent more likely to become obese as adults, Dr Jennifer Moore, the section head of family and school health at Haad, said. "This increases if one or more of the parents are also overweight."

One way to intervene, Prof Hill said, was to speak directly to the parents, instead of the child.

"If you are trying to change a child's behaviour with regards to obesity, recognise they are part of a family and perhaps ignore the child and work primarily with mothers and fathers, and get them to change the environment of the home," he said.

How often a family eats out at fast food chains, how much time a child spends in front of the television, computer or video game console, what snacks are chosen and what portions are served, are all areas of the home that need to be addressed.

"Obese children feel they are incompetent in sports and do not even want to make an attempt, sure they will fail. They are forced to become loners because they are ostracised, so spend time doing 'alone' activities such as watching TV and playing electronic games," Prof Hill said.

Obese children are less likely to seek higher education and less likely to complete their degrees if they do decide to pursue a university education. "Childhood and adolescence are the key times for support and management of obesity."

hkhalaf@thenational.ae